Omega-3 fats are a group of very special fats that have important benefits for health.Over the past few years they have been linked with helping everything from heart disease to brain development. This leaflet looks at the different types of omega-3 fats, where you can get them and some of the benefits they have to offer.
Types of Omega-3 fats
There are three main types of omega-3 fats:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid)
EPA and DHA both come from oil-rich fish and ALA comes from plant foods like walnuts and linseed or flaxseed.
Omega-3s and the Brain
Did you know that your brain is mostly made from fat? Almost 60% of your brain is fat, and most of that fat is DHA. During pregnancy and early childhood is crucial for our brain development. We make about 75% of our brain cells before we are born and the other 25% are in place by the time we are 1 year old. After that, we need to keep adding omega-3s to our diet to help to keep our brains healthy.
DHA is the crucial omega-3 for brain development during pregnancy. It helps normal brain development and is needed to help babies develop good eyesight. In adults, DHA helps to keep your brain healthy. DHA is also important during breastfeeding to help baby’s brains and eyes to develop.
Omega-3s and the Heart
ALA helps to keep cholesterol level healthy and both DHA and EPA are important for a healthy heart. They help to keep blood pressure levels healthy and help to keep the levels of triglyceride in our blood healthy.Triglyceride is a type of fat found in our blood that is similar to cholesterol in that it can contribute to narrowing of the arteries.
Where can we find omega-3 fats?
EPA and DHA are both found in fish. White fish do have a little omega-3 but most of the omega-3 in fish is found in oil-rich fish.These include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring and sardines. Shellfish like mussels and crab are also good sources.It is important to have oil-rich fish at least once a week for a healthy heart and it is recommended during pregnancy as well.ALAis found in plant foods like walnuts and linseed or flaxseed.
Did you know?
Your body can turn some of the ALA you eat into EPA and DHA? Unfortunately this can only happen in small amounts so it is important to include some fish or fish oils even if you eat lots of omega-3 from plants.This helps you to have enough EPA and DHA to get the best benefits for your brain and heart. Eating fish or taking supplements of fish oils (but not fish liver oils) during pregnancy is important for baby’s brain development.
How much omega-3 do we need?
There is no set RDA for omega-3s but experts say that we need about 500mg of EPA everyday. Eating oil-rich fish once or twice a week is enough to give you the omega-3s that you need or many people use a fish oil supplement.
Why are fish liver oils not recommended during pregnancy?
Fish liver oils like cod liver oil are good sources of omega-3s but they also have lots of vitamin A and D. Normally, this is very beneficial but high levels of vitamin A can be harmful during pregnancy.This is why women are advised to avoid fish liver oils during pregnancy.Pure fish oils, however, are safe to use and have lots of benefits for your baby. Always read the label!