By Naomi Mead nutrition therapist
Dietary fat is starting to get the attention it deserves…and this time, for positive reasons. The old “eat fat, get fat” misconception is being quashed, as we gain a better understanding of the very important role that fat plays in our body. The topic of saturated fat and the unintended but potentially devastating consequences its vilification has had on our health is a whole subject of its own, and still very much a topic of hot debate.
Where all experts agree is on the undisputed role of omega-3 fats (commonly labelled “good fats”), and their wide ranging benefits. There are three types of omega-3 fats: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
These come under the category “essential” meaning that the body cannot manufacture them on its own, and need to obtain them through diet. ALA is found in plant based foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and some green vegetables including kale, spinach and salad greens.
Our body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA. However, this is an inefficient conversion process, and it is recommended that we include sources of EPA and DHA in our diet. These are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and herring, and also in algae such as spirulina. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, and may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. They are also essential for brain function, and have been linked with cognition, behaviour and memory. Here are just some of their potential roles:
In pregnancy – omega-3 in pregnancy may help to boost baby’s brain development. A study found that higher levels of DHA in the umbilical cord at birth to be associated with better vision at 6 months, and better mental performance and coordination at 11 months . The literature also suggests that there may be a link between low levels of omega-3s in women and the risk of suffering post-natal depression.
Children’s behaviour– a recent study at the University of Oxford found that children’s blood levels of omega-3 ‘significantly predicted’ how well they were able to concentrate and learn. Blood samples were taken from 493 schoolchildren, aged between 7 and 9 years, and higher levels of omega-3 in the blood were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems.
Arthritis- omega-3 fats can improve joint health by reducing joint stiffness and pain associated with arthritis and osteoarthritis. It is now thought that omega-3s may actually convert into anti-inflammatory compounds called resolvins that are 10,000 times more potent than the original fatty acids themselves.
Depression- there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that a diet rich in omega-3 fats may offer powerful protection against depression. They may also help in managing the major symptoms of depression including anxiety, sleep disturbances and sexual dysfunction.
Skin health – acne occurs when sebum builds up in the skin’s pores and combines with dead skin cells, causing them to become clogged up. This can cause infection and produce an inflammatory response, which we recognize as acne. Whilst evidence remains largely anecdotal, it is thought that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s may be beneficial to acne sufferers; further supported by correlation studies showing that incidences of acne are significantly lower among communities with higher omega-3 consumption. So how can we boost our omega 3 intake? Here are some top tips to getting these good fats into our daily diet:
- At lunchtime opt for salads containing salmon or mackerel. Alternatively sushi, and particular sashimi, is another good option.
- Flaxseed oil makes the basis of a great salad dressing, or can be simply drizzled over steamed vegetables. Just remember to always keep your oil in the fridge as exposure to heat and light can damage the good fats (never cook with flaxseed or any other nut or seed oil)
- Chia up with chia seeds; these little powerhouses of goodness can be sprinkled on porridge, soups and salads, or blended into smoothies.
- Boost your morning juice or smoothie with a teaspoon of organic spirulina powder, or simply knock it back in a glass of water!
- For non-fish eaters especially, an omega-3 supplement should be considered.
Boosting your omega-3 intake may be one of the simplest, and most powerful, things you can do for your health.
References  Jacobson J L et al. Omega-3 in pregnancy boosts baby’s brain development (2008) J Pediatri. 152(3): 356-64
Author Bio: Naomi Mead is a nutrition therapist with a passion for food and its therapeutic powers. Naomi trained and gained her accreditation at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition and contributes to Healthspan’s Nutrition Expert as well as Food First.