Omega-3s – it’s a fishy business

It seems the Innuit Eskimos know a thing or two about eating. With a diet rich in oily fish, their levels of heart disease are remarkably low. But in the last few years, the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids – present in plentiful quantities in oily fish – have been shown to extent beyond the heart. As a nation, we’re very bad at eating oily fish – fewer than half of us do. Yet just one portion a week can help your heart, and possibly your brain and your joints.

It seems the Innuit Eskimos know a thing or two about eating. With a diet rich in oily fish, their levels of heart disease are remarkably low. But in the last few years, the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids – present in plentiful quantities in oily fish – have been shown to extent beyond the heart. As a nation, we’re very bad at eating oily fish – fewer than half of us do. Yet just one portion a week can help your heart, and possibly your brain and your joints.

Omega-3s – what are they?

Omega-3s are fatty acids, which are some of the essential building blocks of our cells. There are two different kinds – long chain omega-3s, mostly found in oily fish and in fish liver, and short chain omega-3s, which come from some plants. It’s actually the long chain omega-3s that our bodies use. If we eat food containing short chain omega-3s, our bodies have to convert them to long chain omega-3s before we can use them. That’s why the best way to get omega 3 into your diet by far is to eat oily fish.

Omega-3s – what do they do?

One of the major benefits of omega-3s is in preventing heart disease. The Food Standards Agency recommends that everyone should eat two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish. This would give us about 500mg a day of omega-3s. If you’ve had a heart attack, 1 gram of omega-3s (two portions of oily fish a week) can prevent abnormal heart rhythms and improve the levels of fats (lipids) in your bloodstream. In fact, whether you’ve had a heart attack or not, omega-3s can cut your risk of dying by up to one fifth. Excitingly, a recent study has shown that taking omega 3 supplements also improves survival rates if you are suffering from heart failure.

Omega-3s beyond the heart

Other studies have suggested that omega-3s can have all sorts of benefits for other parts of your body. They may help to guard against memory loss as you get older. They may help improve your mood if you are suffering from depression. They may help prevent you becoming depressed again if you have suffered from depression in the past. Many people swear by cod liver oil for their joints. It’s not true that cod liver oil ‘lubricates’ the joints, but they have been found to help relieve pain and inflammation if you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (a form of inflammation of the joints). They are also showing some promise in people who suffer from osteoarthritis, the most common kind of arthritis that we associate with ‘wear and tear’.

How do I get my daily dose?

If you eat two six ounce portions of oily fish a week, you can relax – you’re getting all the omega 3 you need. Oily fish includes:

  • Fresh (but not canned) tuna
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Salmon
  • Trout (slightly lower than other oily fish)

Getting enough omega-3s from other sources is a bit more difficult. Because your body isn’t very efficient at converting plant based omega-3s into the kind they need, you don’t get as much as you might think from plant sources. That includes most of the ‘omega 3 enriched’ foods advertised in supermarkets. For instance, to get just 500mg a day of omega-3s, you’d need to eat every day:

  • 16 slices of ‘omega 3’ bread
  • A litre of ‘omega 3 fortified’ milk
  • 5 ‘omega 3’ eggs
  • If you’re vegetarian, eating flax seeds every day will help. Otherwise, if you can’t eat oily fish, fish oil capsules are one of the few supplements I recommend.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.