Omega – 3 – An Essential Contribution
Is it too soon to use the F-Word? Fats, that is? This month, specifically, I would like to talk about the role of Essential Fatty Acids, Omega-6 and Omega-3, which we obtain from the healthy fats included in our diet.
Last month we looked at the importance of the bodys’ immune response and the role of inflammation in health and disease. We focused on foods, which are anti-inflammatory, the polyphenols in turmeric, berries, green tea and cacao, the importance of a diet high in fibre (low in gluten) and the need for increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. This month I want to highlight some of the ways we can consciously increase the amount of Omega-3 in our diets and some of the reasons why our health will benefit from doing so.
WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS?
During digestion the body breaks down the fats that we eat into fatty acids, which may then be absorbed into the bloodstream to be used as energy storage as well as for the production of many other compounds in the body. There are 3 types of fatty acid, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) comprise the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which cannot be synthesized by the body itself and must therefore be obtained exclusively from our diets. Hence why we call them Essential.
WHAT ROLE DO ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS PLAY IN OUR BODIES? WHY ARE THEY ESSENTIAL?
There are 2 main EFAs; Linoleic Acid (LA) known as Omega-6 and Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) known as Omega-3. Each are essential for health (in the right proportion) and each are required for key processes in the body; As we eat, we initiate a chain reaction. We digest and degrade the LA and ALA, from which the body synthesises new compounds, called AA, EPA and DHA. It is these compounds, which make the eicosanoids, essential to many functions in the body. Think of eicosanoids as an urban traffic light network, a sat. nav. system and highways maintenance manager all rolled into one, negotiating the ebb and flow of traffic causing the least disruption possible. A well-functioning command centre causes sunshine and happiness, but a malfunctioning one may cause gridlock and pileups. It is the same in the body, with the need to orchestrate functions optimally via the chemical signaling system known as hormones.
- EFAs are essential for the production of eicosanoids; these chemical messengers (hormones) that send signals around the body telling it when to mount an immune/inflammation response, signaling pain or managing blood pressure. Eicosanoids are integral to functions as diverse as blood clotting, brain function, the inflammation response, the induction of labour and the production of pain and fever.
- EFAs maintain the structure and fluidity of cell membranes, gene expression and signaling within and between the cells protecting against the onset of a variety of chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, inflammatory and neurological diseases (Sampath et al. 2004).
- EFAs help to limit cognitive decline as we age.
ARE WE CURRENTLY GETTING ENOUGH ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS IN OUR DIETS?
Omega-6 and Omega-3 intake is especially vital at key stages in the human life cycle; infancy, pregnancy and lactation. The Linus Pauling Institute (2012) states that it is the ratio intake of Omega-6 to Omega-3 that is important and that current ratios of approx. 15:1 are far higher than the 5:1 ratio found in breast milk and the ratio of 1:1 that has been estimated in the diet of early humans. Early human diets comprised mainly wild meat, fish, plenty of vegetables and some nuts and seeds. By comparison, the standard Western diet of today is high in vegetable oils and relatively low in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and oily fish. This startling ratio difference, from 1:1 to 15:1 is often cited as a contributory factor in the increased risk for cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders including dementia and Alzheimer’s (Kalmijin et al. 1997), (Morris et al. 2003). Key to this ratio increase is the increase in processed vegetable oil consumption and the grain-fed diet of much of the livestock we consume.
If I can use another analogy, “Fish and Chips”, only for the purposes of this exercise let’s call them “Chips (Omega-6) and Fish (Omega-3)” and now visualise a plate with the ratio of Chips to Fish standing at about 15:1. You can start to see where the problem lies.
Start adding in the cakes and bakes, the ready-meals and chocolate bars, the crisps and the take-aways made with vegetable oils and it is easy to see we are nation of Omega-6 junkies. This increase in Omega-6 consumption to the detriment of Omega-3 gives rise to an increase in inflammatory diseases and is a trend reversible by diet.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE BE EATING?
Current WHO recommendations suggest minimum requirements of 2% of daily energy intake for Omega-6 and 0.5% from Omega-3. But what does this actually look like? As a rough guide, 2 – 3 servings of oily fish per week should do it, providing approximately 400-500mg EPA + DHA.* Vegetarians and vegans should be consuming flaxseeds (2 tbsp / day) or walnuts (1/4 cup / day) as well as a plentiful supply of dark green leafy vegetables and some berries to meet their Dietary Reference Intakes. Vegans and some vegetarians are recommended to speak with their healthcare practitioner regarding Omega-3 supplementation.
Our week at home starts with ‘Mackerel Monday’ (weird, I know), a delicious breakfast of tinned mackerel on toast; try it, it’s surprisingly tasty. I buy mackerel fillets in spring water, drain and serve on Gluten Free toast with chopped cherry tomatoes. Salmon once or twice a week is easy for many; I added a recipe for salmon with turmeric and black pepper on the Nutrition Forum last month and will be posting more and please share your ideas there too. My favourite way with salmon is to get a handful of nuts, and handful of herbs and a tsp of spice/citrus and put it all in blender to make a crumb, this keeps the fish from drying out whist baking and also adds texture and flavor. Examples might include;
- almonds and coriander with a grating of lemon rind ORProcessed with VSCO with c1 preset
- pistachios and parsley with a pinch of harissa, OR
- crunched up nori sheets (the seaweed sheets you eat as sushi), crumpled with some sesame seeds & a squeeze of lime…
the options are endless and entirely interchangeable. Smoked mackerel fillets are also easy to buy and store in the fridge and make a great simple mackerel pate forked through with a tbsp. of sour cream and a squeeze of lemon, served on oat cakes for lunch. Tuna is another excellent source of Omega-3.
*Pregnant women should avoid fish that typically have higher levels of methylmercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and albercore tuna).FLAXSEEDS
The richest dietary source of Omega-3 comes from flaxseeds however, so for those of you who are vegetarian, or who are simply not fans of oily fish, then these 2 simple flaxseed recipes can easily be incorporated into your weekly diet. Walnuts are also an excellent source of Omega-3s so be sure to have a few walnuts either as a snack on their own or sprinkled over salads.
Flaxseed and carrot crackers
(recipe @hemsleyhemsley )
1 large carrot; peeled and chopped
100g ground almonds
1/4tsp chilli flakes
Mix all the ingredients together in your food processor until they form a dough • roll out to cracker depth between 2 sheets of baking paper (so that the sticky dough doesn’t stick to your rolling pin) • remove the top piece of baking paper and bake for 10-12 in a moderately hot oven (190) and then leave to cool •if the middle crackers are still soft, cut them up and put them back in the oven for a further 5 mins) once cool I break off into pieces and store in an airtight tin • delicious with dips, for breakfast and just as a simple anti-inflammatory boost during the day ?
Chia and Flaxseed Porridge
1 tbsp of golden flaxseeds
1 tbsp of chia seeds
1 tbsp of coconut flakes
1 cup of almond milk
Options to add on top:
More chopped nuts
Soak the flaxseeds and chia overnight in a bowl with the almond milk and coconut flakes. By morning your chia will have swelled in size and you will have a thick creamy porridge, you can warm this or eat it cold, ready to add with your favourite toppings. I love chocolatey cacao nibs and a grated apple, with a few berries. If you like a sweeter breakfast a dash of maple syrup of simply add a tsp of cinnamon.
Kalmijin, S., Launer, L.J., Ott, A., Wittemna, J.C., Hofman, A. and Breteler, M.M (1997) Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study. Annals of Neurology. 42(5), p.776-782.
Linus Pauling Institute (2014) Essential Fatty Acids [Online]. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids#intake-recommendations [Accessed: 23 November 2016].
Morris, M.C., Evans, D.A., Bienias, J.L., Tangney, C.C., Bennett, D.A>, Wilson R.S., Aggarwal, N. and Schneider, J. (2003) Consumption of Fish and n-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer Disease. Archinves of Neurology. 60(7), p.940-946.
Sampath, H and Ntambi, J.M. (2004) Polyunsaturated fatty acid regulation of gene expression. Nutrition Review. 62(9), p.333-339.