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What is Omega 3?

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Current Government guidelines state we should eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. Here we discuss the nutritional elements behind these guidelines.

Omega 3 is an unsaturated fatty acid, derived from vitamin F and commonly found in marine and plant oils.

What is the difference between omega 3 and cod liver oil?

Omega 3 and cod liver oil contain equally valuable nutrients for the human body. Both contain unique polyunsaturated fats that are beneficial to our health. Cod liver oil is a source of essential fatty acids, and contains the essential omega 3 fatty acids Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), along with vitamins A and D.

Though both are sources of unsaturated fatty acids, omega 3 supplements, being more concentrated, tend to contain a higher dose of DHA and EPA fatty acids than cod liver oil.

Polyunsaturated fats: the specifics

Omega 3 belongs to the polyunsaturated fat family, of which there are three main types of omega three fats.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), as mentioned above, are known as ‘marine omega 3s’ and derive mainly from fish.

The third type, Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) is the most common form of omega 3 fatty acid in Western diets. ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA, but production is limited. It can be sourced from foods such as leafy vegetables, walnuts, flaxseeds and vegetable oil. 

The facts about fat

The classification of fats as either healthy or harmful can be confusing.

Polyunsaturated fats, as you may have guessed, are the good guys. Consider them a member of the ‘un-saturated fats’ family, alongside monounsaturated fats, which are found in abundance in avocado and olive oil.

Saturated fats and trans fats require careful monitoring. Brits don’t typically over eat on the trans-fat front, however, on average people get 12.6% of their energy (kJ/kcal) from saturated fats, which is slightly above the 11% maximum recommended by the Government. 

The benefits of omega 3 are extensive

The medical endorsement of omega 3’s benefits is profound. Current UK guidelines, to eat at least two portions of fish a week, were developed based on evidence formulated in 2004, which found eating oily fish can lower blood pressure and reduce fat build up in the arteries.

It is the ‘PUFA content’, or polyunsaturated fatty acids of oily fish that are responsible for these health benefits.  Polyunsaturated fats are the main ingredient of omega three.

The study, completed by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), suggests that ‘fish consumption, particularly that of oily fish, decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease’. Not only this, it is thought to play an important role in fetal and infant growth.

Omega 3 helps us to maintain normal brain function. It can also be combined with other nutrients, such as glucosamine, which is beneficial for joint health. Dr. Sarah brewer confirms this saying it will ‘reduce inflammation and ‘oil’ your joints from the inside’.

According to systematic research conducted by the University of Melbourne, amongst others, as well as published in the American journal of Psychiatry, ‘omega-3 fish oils may boost the beneficial effect of antidepressants’[i].

Researchers were upbeat about the results, especially for omega-3 oils, which they said ‘could now be recommended for use as an add-on treatment alongside antidepressants, on the basis of their results’.

omega 3 through diet

The human body is incredibly intelligent. It can make most of the fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. Unfortunately, this is not the case for omega 3, which are essential fats that we have to acquire through our diet. The following foods are particularly high in omega three content:

  • Salmon

  • Mackerel

  • Soy beans

  • Tofu

  • Flaxseed

  • Walnuts

  • Chia Seed

Assuming oysters and caviar, which are also high in omega 3 content, are not regulars on the menu, achieving the recommended intake is not always easy. Supplements are a quick and easy way to keep on top of your polyunsaturated fatty acid intake. Try Healthspan’s Super Strength Omega 3 tablets. 

Sarah Brewer graduated as a doctor from Cambridge University. Having worked in hospitals and general practice, she gained a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine from the University of Surrey. She is the author of over 60 popular health books and writes widely on all aspects of health including complementary medicine. More from this expert.

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Nutrition Expert sources the latest information and advice from a range of qualified doctors, nutritionists and coaches. We always endeavour to have the most up to date information possible and publish new content weekly. However with the constant research in this field sometimes some of our older articles can become out of date. If you see anything that you believe needs to be updated please let us know via our Contact Us page