The health benefits of omega-3 fats have been a hot topic in the media over recent years. You may be wondering what is so unique about these fats. To keep it simple, our bodies make most of the fats that we need from other fat or raw materials but we can’t produce omega- 3 fats. We call these ‘essential fatty acids’ and they are important for human health. So, we can only reap the potential health benefits of omega-3 by eating food or taking supplements that contain it.
The hype has stemmed from an array of studies suggesting that people from Japan, the Mediterranean and Greenland with a diet rich in omega-3 have a lower risk of heart disease than people in the UK. A high intake of omega-3 has also been found to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Research has implied a link between omega-3 and cognitive health too; it may help to maintain good memory and play a part in the prevention and treatment of depression. Countless omega-3 research has been specifically focussed on children. Studies have linked poor reading ability in children with low levels of certain types of omega-3 fats. What’s more, research has indicated that omega-3 may improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

There are different types of omega-3 fats that work slightly differently in our bodies. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) should be included in our diet as our bodies can’t make it and we need it to make other omega-3 fats. ALA is found mainly in vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are fats that can be made from ALA in our bodies. Only small amounts of EPA and DHA are formed from ALA. EPA and DHA are the most beneficial to health and it is therefore recommended that we should all be eating food rich in these types of fats.

So what are the best food sources of EPA and DHA?:

  • Oily fish has the highest levels so we should try to include this in our diet. Examples of oily fish are: salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and herring
  • White fish contains some omega-3 but at much lower levels than oily fish. Examples of white fish are: cod, haddock, plaice, pollock, coley, dab, flounder, red mullet, gurnard and tilapia
  • Canned fish also counts as a source of oily fish but some brands of tuna remove the omega-3 during processing – it’s worth checking the label!

It is recommended that everyone should eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish. There are guideline portion amounts for different age groups as shown in the table below.

Age One portion size
18 months to three years ¼ – ¾ small fillet or 1-3 tablespoons
four to six years ½ – 1 small fillet or 2 – 4 tablespoons
seven to eleven years 1 – 1 ½ small fillets or 3 – 5 tablespoons
12 years to adult 140g (5 oz) fresh fish or 1 small can oily

 

Don’t panic if you don’t eat fish! You can still get omega-3 in your diet from other food sources. Examples are nuts and seeds; soya and soya products; vegetable oils; and green leafy vegetables. There are also some omega-3 enriched foods available in the supermarket now, including certain brands of eggs, milk, yoghurt, bread and spreads. These foods contain very small amounts of omega-3 but may help to increase overall intake when included in a diet already rich in omega-3.

It is recommended that you try to get omega-3 from food but if you are struggling to get enough, you may wish to take a supplement. Here are some useful tips if you are thinking about taking a supplement:

  • Look at the DHA and EPA content. It is recommended that you should consume the daily amount provided by eating one to two portions of fish per week (approximately 450mg EPA and DHA per daily adult dose)Choose omega-3 oil rather than fish liver oil
  • Check the vitamin A content. It has been advised that if you take supplements containing vitamin A, you should not have more than a total of 1.5mg (1500ug) a day from food and supplements combined. If you are pregnant or planning a baby, you are not advised to take supplements containing vitamin A.

To summarise – there is increasing evidence that omega-3 fats have a variety of health benefits, such as helping to prevent heart disease. It is recommended that most of us try to include more fish (particularly oily fish) in our diet as this is the richest source of omega-3. It may be worth considering other food sources of omega-3, and even supplements if you don’t eat fish.

 

Kirsty Bamping RD MNutr
Kirsty is a registered dietitian and works for the NHS. She obtained a Master of Nutrition (Dietetics) degree from the University of Nottingham. Kirsty is interested in assessing, diagnosing and treating diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level.


Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.  

Please leave us a comment if you have any questions or ideas for future blog posts!