Gone are the days when all fat was maligned and held responsible artery clogging and early death.
These days, we’re being told fat is good – well, certain types of it, at least.
The theory is that fat is satisfying and filling – reducing hunger pangs after eating.
It’s also vital for absorbing nutrients from other foods, plus healthy skin and optimum brain function.
But it’s crucial to eat the right fats – or you could do more harm than good – not only to your waistline, but your long-term health.
What exactly are omega fats?
Fats can be split into two groups known as saturated and unsaturated.
The latter consists of two further groups known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are often referred to as ‘healthy fats’.
The omegas are groups of fatty acids that fall into these two categories and are classified as omega 3, 6 and 9.
What are omega 9 fatty acids then?
Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats that fall into the monounsaturated group.
The primary fatty acid in this group is called oleic acid and can be found in plant-based foods that include avocados, olives, olive oil and nuts such as cashews, walnuts, pistachios, pecans and almonds.
This particular fatty acid has been shown to help promote cardiovascular health by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats
Almonds for a key part of the cholesterol-lowering Portfolio diet and olive oil is renowned for its positive effect on health and is a major component of the much praised Mediterranean diet.
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are also a group of unsaturated fats but they fall into the polyunsaturated group.
Unlike omega 9 which can be made within the body, the other two cannot and must be obtained from the diet, which is why they are referred to as being essential.
How about those much-hyped omega-3s?
So, the omega 3 group of fatty acids are made up of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The most nutritionally significant are EPA and DHA.
They have a key role to play in the body, which includes forming a structural component of cell membranes, so getting adequate amounts from the diet is pretty important.
There has been a huge amount of research surrounding these two fatty acids and if you did a Google search you could be led to believe they are the antidote to every health concern under the sun, a modern day ‘snake oil’.
Once eaten, omega 3 fatty acids (and omega 6) go through a series of chemical reactions.
These convert them into compounds that contribute to several important physiological roles.
One such pathway leads to the formation of hormone-lie substances called prostaglandins and in the case of omega 3, these are anti-inflammatory.
This means they help to reduce inflammation in the body, which is thought to be at the root of many chronic diseases.
A great deal of the research has highlighted the positive effect they can have on improving cardiovascular health which is affected by inflammation – the effect of an overactive immune system can over time can cause damage to the body.
Other health benefits of omega 3 include the positive effect they can have on mood, skin and inflammatory conditions.
The main source of omega 3 is oily fish – but food surveys show that a significant number of people fail to eat any at all, let alone meet the Government’s recommendation of one portion per week – which means low intakes of omega 3.
Now, what about omega 6?
The omega 6 group of fatty acids are also vitally important and used for normal brain function, growth and development.
However, in order to meet these requirements only a small amount is required – and as omega 6 is abundant in so many foods, getting what you need is of little concern.
However, achieving a healthy balance of omega 3 to 6 is considered to be healthy and we tend to eat way more omega 6 than omega 3, which may contribute to the risk of disease.
This is because once you have gleaned the omega 6 your body requires, the excess begins to undergo a conversion to another type of prostaglandin that encourages inflammation in the body.
Research shows that over time the body can enter a state of low-grade inflammation that causes the immune system to remain ‘switched on’ and over long periods of time this could be detrimental to your health.
It’s also unlikely you would know this was happening, as the inflammation itself would not cause any obvious symptoms.
So what can I do?
The simplest way to start rebalancing your omegas is to address the type of oils and fats you use on a daily basis.
Many of us are trained to choose polyunsaturated margarines and cook with oils such as sunflower, which are rich in omega 6 (a result of the long standing guidance to reduce saturated fat in the diet).
However, you’re better off sticking to olive oil for everyday use (this is mostly omega 9) and coconut oil for high temperature cooking (this is all saturated fat known).
Cutting out processed food can also help – and of course upping your intake of oily fish.
ALA, or Alpha Linoleic Acid, is the final omega 3 fatty acid you need.
This can be found in foods such as green veggies, quinoa and seeds.
DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish that are essential as the body can’t make them ‘in house’.
While ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, our ability to carry out this conversion is poor.
So while foods such as seeds and seed oils – such as chia – are often promoted as being high in ALA, relying on these foods alone will not provide you with enough of the more important EPA and DHA.
Not great news for vegetarians, vegans or those of you who dislike oily fish!
What about supplements?
For those of you who don’t eat oily fish then a good quality supplement containing EPA and DHA can be beneficial.
These supplements are also available in a form suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Try Healthspan’s Opti Omega 3, 1000mg (£10.95 for 60 capsules) which contains optimum levels of DHA (276mg) and EPA (220mg).