If you've ever read a health or healthy food article, ever talked to someone concerned about dietary consumption, or ever been exposed to a commercial for something healthy, you've heard the phrase "Omega-3s" or Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
If you're a bit more involved, you may have heard of the cousins of the Omega 3, the Omega 6 and Omega 9s. The question is, what are they? Are they any good for you? Are they just a fancy branding name for something else? Let's find out.
While we talk about fats in diet all the time, and we talk about weight loss all the time, it's worth mentioning that fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. Whether you're vegan, keto, or somewhere in between, you still need to consume fats to stay healthy.
Fats get a bad rap for two reasons. The first is the misconception that dietary fat and body fat are the same thing. Your body stores energy as fat, and while some of that energy comes from dietary fats, a lot of it comes from sugars and carbohydrates. The fact that body fat and dietary fat have the same name simply means people draw the conclusion that reducing fat intake means reducing body fat.
Of course, dietary fats are often calorie-dense, because they're the stored energy of whatever source the fats came from. Reducing fat intake can indeed reduce weight, simply from that alone.
The other reason is that there are several different types of dietary fats, and some of them are more dangerous and unhealthy than others.
Omega-3s, for example, are a fatty acid. They're a kind of dietary fat that your body needs and, indeed, is healthy to have. Conversely, trans fats have such a negative effect on the body that they've been all but eliminated from most food sources in the country.
Fats are essential in the body because a lot of different bodily processes make use of fat. For example, some vitamins need to be dissolved in fat before your body can absorb and use them. Taking a vitamin without sufficient dietary fat might mean your body doesn't actually absorb much if any of the vitamin, making it worthless to you.
Trans fats are a type of fat that naturally occurs in some foods, but is primarily made in the process of partial hydrogenation. If you've ever read the ingredients list of a food item and seen something like "partially hydrogenated soybean oil", that's a small amount of trans fat in that food. This kind of oil is made as a way to preserve food items; it keeps the oil from going rancid on the shelf or having an inconveniently short shelf life.
If you wonder why a product with that kind of ingredient lists 0 trans fats in the nutrition facts, it's often because there's a legal lower limit at which point it no longer needs to be listed. Specifically, "If a serving contains less than 0.5 gram, the content, when declared, must be expressed as "0 g."" They know it's there, it's just so little that it doesn't need to be precisely labeled.
What this means is that unless you're paying attention to the list of ingredients that may have trans fats in them, chances are you're still probably eating some, and might not realize just how much you're getting.
Saturated fats are fats that primarily come from animal sources, including dairy. They raise HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (good and bad, respectively). They're called saturated because their atomic structure is saturated with hydrogen. We're not going to get into the specific chemistry of hydrogen double bonds here, though.
Collectively, saturated and trans fats are the unhealthy fats. Healthier fats are unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
Unsaturated fats come in two varieties: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are typically found in oils, both from animal and plant sources, and studies have shown that they're healthier than their saturated brethren. Polyunsaturated fats come from plant-based foods, like olive oils for example. They can also decrease the risk of heart disease if consumed instead of saturated fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. It is found in both plant sources and fatty fish like salmon, which is why a common omega 3 supplement is simply fish oil. Plant sources include flaxseed, soybean and canola oils, and some nuts like walnuts.
Types of Omega Fatty Acids
We mentioned above that there are three types of omega fatty acids, 3, 6, and 9. So what's the difference between them?
Omega-3s are the most common and well-known of the fatty acids, but what many people don't know is that there are many types of omega-3s. All omega-3s are a polyunsaturated fatty acid. The human body doesn't produce these fats naturally, so you need to get them from your diet, which usually means consuming fish.
If you're curious, three of the most common forms of omega-3 fatty acids are Eicosapentaenoic Acid, Docosahexaenoic Acid, and Alpha-Linolenic Acid. I'll leave you to research what those are yourself, if you're interested in the chemistry. The main difference between them is the number of carbon atoms in their chains, and how they react in the body. EPA, for example, helps reduce inflammation, while DHA is a critical element for brain development and health.
Omega-3s have a lot of benefits, many of which are well known or expounded upon by many other health blogs out there.
- They increase "good" cholesterol instead of bad, particularly when you consume them in place of a saturated or trans fat source.
- They help reduce the symptoms of brain disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorders.
- They help reduce weight.
- They reduce the fat in your liver, which builds up from other fat sources and caloric intake, as well as liver disease.
- They support brain development in infants, making them a crucial nutrient.
- They help improve memory and reduce dementia.
- They're a critical component in bone mineralization and density.
- They can help reduce early-life asthma.
But all of that is just omega-3s. What about the other two?
Omega-6 fatty acids are also a kind of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Where omega-3s have three carbon atoms at the end of the fatty acid chain (hence the omega, or end, and three, for three carbons), omega-6s have six.
This kind of fatty acid is less beneficial for the body and has fewer positive effects. The primary use of these acids in the body is simply burning them for fuel, or energy.
The body needs some omega-6 fats to function properly. In particular, some kinds of omega-6 acids have inflammatory properties. While you might not think that's a good thing, the immune system does need them to function properly.
Unfortunately, the average American diet includes much higher than necessary levels of omega-6 fatty acids. This can lead to over-inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
There are a lot of potential benefits and potential drawbacks to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Some studies have indicated that one particular omega-6, called GLA, increases the effectiveness of certain breast cancer drugs.
Omega-6 fats are found in plant-based sources like soybeans, corn, safflower oil, nuts, and seeds. They're also found in animal sources, including poultry, fish, eggs, and meat. They're kind of everywhere, and since it's not really called out on nutritional labels anywhere, it's difficult to identify and avoid them if you think you're getting too much of it in your diet.
The third kind of omega fatty acid is the omega-9 acids. These, as the name implies, have nine carbon atoms at the far end of the chain. They also only have one double bond, back to the chemistry, which makes them monounsaturated fatty acids instead of poly like the other two.
Omega-9 fatty acids are also not classified as essential nutrients. That doesn't mean your body doesn't need them, as a layman's understanding of essential means. In this case, "essential" is a nutritional term that means "not produced in the body and must be obtained from external sources."
In other words, the body can make some omega-9s, but they're still valuable to obtain from external sources.
Omega-9s are the most common form of fat in the body, actually. Since they're not an essential nutrient, they're not talked about all that often. However, that doesn't mean science isn't studying them.
- They can reduce bad cholesterol and plasma triglycerides in people with diabetes.
- They can improve insulin sensitivity.
- They can reduce inflammation.
These benefits, of course, come from replacement rather than supplement.In other words, the benefits come from replacing saturated fats, trans fats, or other kinds of fats with more omega-9 fats. The combination of the reduction in bad fats and the introduction of more good fats brings those benefits. Simply eating more good fats isn't likely to have the same impact.
Omega-9s come from mostly plant-based sources when you aren't making them in your body naturally. You get them from olive oil, nut oils like cashew, almond, and peanut, and from the nuts themselves.
Should You Change Your Diet or Supplements?
Armed with all of this knowledge, what should you do to adjust your diet to take advantage of these nutrients?
Bearing in mind that most people get too much omega-6, you typically don't need to take an all-omega supplement. There are omega 3-6-9 supplements, which are typically a mixture of oils at a specific 2:1:1 ratio, but there's no real need to take them.
Since you likely don't need more omega-6s, and you can already produce omega-9s naturally, you primarily need to supplement omega-3s. Hence the common advice of taking fish oil capsules for their benefits, rather than taking an all-omega supplement.
If you want to take things a step further, you can strive to reduce the trans and saturated fats in your diet. Foods like cakes and cookie mixes that include shelf-stable oils, frozen biscuits, prepared breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn (because of the oil/butter in the package), cream-filled candies, and fried foods all tend to be high in trans fats. You can also start watching labels and try to avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils in them.
While cutting down on these bad fats, you can increase your intake of omega-3s to compensate. Fatty fish is the best source, but you can also cook more frequently with healthy oils like canola, peanut, and olive oils.
Finally, you might consider reducing your natural intake of omega-6 fatty acids. You can do this either by reducing your consumption of the foods that include them, or by fighting their negative effects with more anti-inflammatory dietary supplements.
Unfortunately, many of the sources of omega-6s are otherwise beneficial or healthy. You get them in large amounts in things like soybean oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and other nuts. They're also present in high amounts in mayonnaise, so cut back on that.
Overall, the only omega fatty acid that you really want to take as a supplement is omega-3s, which is why they are the fatty acid that so many people go wild over, include in healthy foods, and point out whenever it's present. Taking a fish oil supplement or eating more fatty fish has a range of health benefits, so focus on reducing the bad fats and increasing the good fats for the best results.