There’s now enough evidence to warrant a push for Australians to increase their consumption of omega-3s – the long-chain varieties can prevent cardiovascular disease and may even protect against arthritis, mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Clearing the confusion
There are two types of omega-3s:
Long-chain omega-3s include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DPA (docosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA are found in oily fish and algae, with smaller amounts found in other seafood, eggs and meat. DHA and EPA maintain a protective function for the brain, eye and cardiovascular systems.
Short-chain omega-3s ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) are mostly found in certain nuts, legumes, canola oil, margarine, green leafy vegetables and linseed oil.
The health benefits of omega-3s are more prominent in the long-chain types. Your body can convert ALA to long-chain omega-3s, it doesn’t do so very efficiently. This is because omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for enzymes to turn short chains into long ones, and the Western diet is dominated by omega-6 fatty acids found in meat, plant oils, nuts, seeds and processed foods. And while we do need omega-6s to maintain bone and reproductive health, regulate metabolism and maintain skin and hair health, it’s also vital to include sources of DHA and EPA in our diets.
How much omega-3 do you need?
It’s generally accepted by experts that you need 500mg of EPA+DHA a day for general health, or 1g for people with known heart disease. According to the Heart Foundation, you can achieve this quota by:
- Eating two to three serves of oily fish a week
- Eating foods enriched with omega-3s
- Taking fish oil supplements
Oily fish provides other beneficial nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. However only a small amount of Australians eat enough fish, making enriched foods and supplements potentially a significant source of long-chain omega 3s. The Heart Foundation’s recommendations may sound easy enough to follow, but CHOICE’s investigation found a couple of hurdles.