Fat in the diet has been blamed and shamed for a long time, however, certain types of fat are an important part of achieving overall health. Omega-3 fatty acids are a key component in keeping the body, and particularly the mind, functioning optimally.
Most people have heard of saturated and unsaturated fats. When generalizing, health authorities often lump saturated fat into the “unhealthy” category and unsaturated fat into the “healthy” category. In reality, nature is much more complex and most foods contain multiple types of fat. To keep things simple, it is safe to assume that in a typical North American diet, most people are getting enough saturated fat. For this reason, I want to focus on unsaturated fat, specifically omega-3s, since they are less prevalent in today’s typical diet, yet come with many fantastic health benefits.
Omega-3s come in both plant and animal forms. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plants such as flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts. The animal forms, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and more recently discussed DPA (Docosapentaenoic acid), are forms of omega-3s found in marine life. Cold water, fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel contain high levels of beneficial EPA, DHA and DPA. Our bodies are able to produce EPA, DHA and DPA from ALA, however the conversion rate is low and specific nutrients are needed, which are not always readily available in the body.
Omega-3s are crucial for overall optimum function. Studies have found that they improve cardiovascular health, reduce joint pain and inflammation, improve sleep quality, and keep the skin and eyes healthy. They are also imperative for healthy brain function.
There have been many studies looking at the effects of omega-3s on the brain. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reported the anti-depressive effects of omega-3s; those with low levels were more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety, and symptoms eased when levels were corrected. Other benefits include helping to prevent Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairment and age-related mental decline, reducing mood swings, and relapses in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Omega-3s are crucial for brain growth and development in utero, infancy and childhood; and children who get enough omega-3s have shown higher intelligence, better communication and social skills, fewer behavioural problems and developmental delays, as well as a reduced risk of ADHA and autism spectrum disorders.
It is important for overall health to consume fatty fish, oils, nuts and seeds, however the amount of omega-3s in these foods can vary greatly. The diet of fatty fish dictates the amount of omega-3s these fish are able to produce. It was previously believed that wild caught fish had higher levels of omega-3s, however, some farmed fish can be fed a specific diet which increases their levels. Unfortunately most farmed fish are fed corn and soy pellets which do not provide the natural building blocks for high levels of omega-3s. For optimum health, I recommend getting 1000-3000mg daily of EPA, DHA and DPA combined. The most reliable way to do this is through a good quality omega-3 supplement.
Fats are so important for overall health and well-being. Focus less on how much fat you eat and more on the types of fat, as this will ensure that you are getting a variety of nutrients and omega-3s to keep you feeling your best for many years to come.