Omega-3 fatty acids and heart health
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats that are very important for our health. They are called essential fatty acids because our body cannot make them, so we need to get them from our diet.
They are a few types of omega-3 fats which include:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid): This is very important for good health, mainly found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid): These are essential for a healthy heart and blood circulation, found in oily fish (white fish and shellfish contain smaller amounts).
How can omega-3 fats help us?
Research shows that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is linked with a lower risk of heart disease. In countries where people eat more oily fish, e.g. in the Mediterranean, Greenland and Japan, fewer people have heart disease in comparison to countries where people eat small amounts of oily fish, for instance in the UK. Fish and shellfish are also great sources of other nutrients such as protein, iodine, calcium, selenium, vitamin A and D.
Omega-3 fats may protect the heart and blood vessels from disease. They support the healthy development of a baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Omega-3 fats can also help with maintaining good memory and improving depression.
How much should we eat?
In the UK, it is recommended to eat at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish. A portion is 140g fresh fish or one small can of oily fish. There is no specific recommendation of a dose for omega-3 for the general population in the UK.
Oily fish can also be a source of pollutants that can build up in the body over a long time. For this reason, there are maximum recommendations for the number of portions some groups should be eating each week. To find out more, please check the NHS website.
What are some good sources of omega-3?
Oily fish have the highest levels so we definitely should include it in our diet. The following are all good options: mackerel, sprats, salmon, kippers, pilchards, trout, herring, crab (fresh), whitebait, swordfish, sardines, anchovies, bloater, carp, eel.
White fish contains some omega-3 fats but at much lower levels than oily fish. Fresh, frozen or tinned fish are all a good option but remember to read the food labels if you choose canned fish.
Something to consider as well is your method of cooking. Fish that is steamed, baked or grilled is a healthier choice than fried fish. Frying can increase the fat content of fish and shellfish, especially if they’re cooked in butter.
*Shark, swordfish and marlin may contain high levels of mercury that may be harmful to the developing baby’s nervous system. It is advised to avoid these fishes by women who are pregnant or planning a baby, and by all children under 16 years.
What about sustainability?
When you buy fish, just make sure you choose a fish from sustainable sources, e.g. with a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo. Also, it is very important that we eat a wide variety of food and that includes fish. This is to ensure that there are enough fish to eat now and in the future.
What if you don’t like/eat fish?
Other sources of ALA in the diet include chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts, and vegetable oil (e.g. rapeseed and linseed; use as cooking oil). To meet the ALA recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), it is recommended to eat about a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily.
There are also omega-3 enriched foods such as certain brands of eggs, milk, yoghurt, bread, and spreads. Read the food labels to make sure.
Omega-3 supplements are not recommended in the UK healthy population.
Speak to a nutritional professional like myself, if you want to increase the intake of omega-3 fats in your diet and you are not sure how.
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