You've probably heard a lot about omega fats and their importance, but what about their unique makeup is so special? Well, it turns out, they are not only special, but they are also essential. Why? Because your body can't make them on its own so you must get them from the foods you eat. Let's explore why these particular fats are critical for an optimal body and brain, and then let's find ways to add more of them into your daily diet.
What Are Omega-3 Fats?
Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat, meaning they have two or more double bonds and rank among the top of healthy fats, especially the following three forms:
- ALA or alpha-linolenic acid is found in most nuts and seeds and is especially rich in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. And—good news—you can also find omega-3s in vegetables—leafy green vegetables, that is. They are considered short-chain omega-3 fats.
- EPA or eicosatetraenoic acid are found in both fresh and saltwater fish and considered long-chain omega-3 fats.
- DHA docosahexaenoic acid is found in fish oil and red-brown algae and is long-chain omega-3 fat as well.
Joel Fuhrman, MD, in his book Super Immunity, explains that the basic building block of omega-3 fats is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Researchers have found that people can convert short-chain omega-3 fats (ALA) from plant sources into long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA). Fish and fish oils are good sources of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA). They are important for pregnant women, as they are vital for fetal development, including neuronal, retinal, and immune function states research published in Advances in Nutrition.
Research shows people have varying abilities converting ALA (plant sources of omega-3 fats) into DHA (fish and some algae sources of omega-3 fats). This issue raises the question as to whether you can achieve adequate amounts through a plant-based diet alone. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, some individuals who eat omega-3 in the form of ALA from greens, flax, and walnuts can achieve adequate levels of EPA and DHA, while others are not able to manufacture optimal amounts.
Why Are Omega-3 Fats Important?
Essential fatty acids, omega-3 (along with omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids), play a critical role in the development and functioning of the brain and central nervous system according to research published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice.
Over the past 150 years, there has been an unprecedented change in fat intake. Americans are consuming more pro-inflammatory refined, omega-6 oils including corn, soy, and safflower oils, which has replaced omega-3 fats from fish, wild game, and plants. This shift has resulted in adults not meeting the recommended levels and proper ratio of omega 6 to omega-3 fatty acid intake.
Mark Hyman, MD, author of The UltraMind Solution, explains the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats has increased from 1:1 to 10:1 or 20:1 in diets, and how the effects of this change have been destructive to health. "A major disease of aging and the epidemic of ‘brain disorders’ is directly associated with this change in our diet." He further reports that low levels of omega-3 fats are linked to everything from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety to learning disabilities, dementia, and other neurological diseases. "Our brains do not work without omega-3 fats. Period."
Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid benefits a multitude of health conditions. Below is additional research linked to backing these claims in support of upping the ante toward improving your omega-3 fat consumption. Research shows they affect your brain in the following ways:
- May reduce depression symptoms in younger individuals
- Alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
- Lessen the effects of brain trauma
They also support the critical body functions by:
- Maintaining a healthy metabolism.
- Helping formulate the basic cell structure of cell membranes.
- Lowering the risk of various types of chronic diseases such as heart disease by preventing plaque build-up and also displaying protective effects against cancer.
What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3s?
Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 in the form of DHA and EPA.
With that said, there are plenty of plant-based sources to choose from to get your daily omega-3 supplement. Flaxseeds and hemp seeds have the highest concentration of this essential fat, according to Joel Furhman, MD, in his book Super Immunity. For people worried about mercury contamination from consuming fish, it's important to note that fish get their omega-3 in the form of EPA and DHA from their source of food—phytoplankton. Additional options for omega-3 fats from the plant sources already mentioned including walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. And don’t forget that you can find omega-3s in various types of vegetables of the leafy green variety.
A concern about fish consumption is that it can accumulate environmental pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns consumers primarily of mercury toxicity and its impact on the central nervous system. The EPA and Food and Drug administration together offer good advice about eating fish if this raises concern. While DHA is a beneficial fat from fish, it's important to choose fish that are low in mercury. A good rule of thumb: the smaller the size of the fish, the lower the mercury levels. The higher mercury levels are generally found in larger and older predatory fish and marine mammals according to the American Heart Association.
You can see how critical the consumption of omega-3s is for your overall body and brain and how they supplement your health. It's important to note that you do not need lots of EPA and DHA, but issues can arise when people become deficient in these required fats.
Now, let's put this information into practical use! Here are some easy ways to get more of these essential fats into your body daily.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3s
Flax Meal: Use Homemade Flax Meal on Your Meals/Snacks
Buy whole flaxseeds, keep them in your refrigerator, and grind half a cup at a time—using a coffee grinder or blender. In seed form, little of the omega-3 fat can be absorbed because the intact seed is tough to digest. By grinding the flaxseed, you help improve absorption.
A tablespoon a day will give you a good dose of omega-3s. Add to smoothies (it makes an excellent thickener!), oatmeal, salads, or cooked veggies. Use it as an egg replacement in baking—use one tablespoon of flax meal to 2.5 tablespoons of water. Mix and let rest for five minutes and use in place of one egg. Try flaxseed oil and add to salad dressings or even flax milk to make some delicious smoothies!
Purslane: Use Purslane, a Wild Green That Contains Omega-3 Fats
This slightly tart green is delicious added to soups and mixed into salads or stews.
Hemp Seeds: Add Hemp Seeds to Your Meals
Note: Use as a topping on yogurt, in smoothies, on salads, even sprinkled onto soups. Hemp milk is a great option as well!
Chia Seed: Try Chia Seed for a Change
Enjoy a delicious chia pudding for breakfast. Combine two cups of milk (for example, coconut milk) with 1/2 cup of chia seeds, one tablespoon of maple syrup, and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Mix well and let sit in your fridge overnight.
Walnuts: Snack on Walnuts
Animal-Based Sources of Omega-3s
It's best to consume fatty fish and other seafood that is wild and sustainably caught. Salmon is readily available fresh, and the others you can find canned as another convenient option too. High-quality fish are especially rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA. You can remember to pick up any of these five fish at the store by the SMASH acronym.
- Salmon (wild)
Though fish is an excellent source for omega-3 fats, sustainable and humanely raised or harvested poultry and meat have higher levels of omega-3 fats as well. Additionally, chicken eggs from chickens consuming flaxseed or fish oil supplementation in their feed will supply you with omega-3 fats.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week—that is roughly 3.5 ounces cooked. In general, most health organizations agree 250–500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined daily to support healthy individuals. However, because individual needs depend on body size, age, and type of omega-3; there is no exact answer. As you move forward in taking steps to increase your omega-3 fats, consult with your physician for quantities specific to you and your body’s needs.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Discover Deepak Chopra’s secrets to stay energetic and balanced all year long with our self-paced online course, Secrets to Vibrant Health. Learn More.