Upping your intake of omega-3s is the path to take when it comes to preventing heart disease and improving arthritis. Caitlin Reid explains.
If you're going to eat more of something this year, make it omega-3s. Boosting your intake of these essential fatty acids can help reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis.
Yet the average Australian adult consumes less than a quarter of the suggested dietary target. And according to the latest report on omega-3 fatty acids released in November last year, baby boomers - those born from 1946 to 1964 - are not getting enough long-chain (EPA and DHA) omega-3 fats.
Are omega-3s fats really that important? Yes, everyone – adults, the elderly, kids and vegetarians and omnivores alike – should be consuming more of them.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is considered to be an essential nutrient - our bodies cannot make it so we must get them from the food we eat. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain omega-3 fat that is found in plant sources, while the long-chain omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found in animal sources.
Role in the body
Omega-3 fats are found in the body's cell membranes, allowing nutrients to enter our cells and ensuring removal of waste products. Omega-3 fats also play an important role in the production of powerful hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which help regulate many important physiological functions including blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission and inflammatory responses.
Food sources of omega-3
The plant-based omega-3 fat ALA can be found in canola oil and table spread, linseed oil, linseeds, soy beans, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables, as well as foods fortified with omega-3. The long-chain omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, are found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring and mackerel, seafood, algae, and to a lesser extent lean red meat and eggs.
Health benefits of omega-3 fats
Countless studies have proven the link between omega-3 and a reduced risk of chronic health conditions.
Cardiovascular disease Omega-3 fats reduce the risk of heart disease. EPA and DHA are precursors for the prostaglandins that reduce blood clots and inflammation, as well as improve blood flow. Research shows long-chain omega-3 fats lower triglyceride levels in the blood and increase the good HDL cholesterol levels. All of these combined help to lower the risk of developing heart disease.
Depression Some studies have identified the possibility that a lack of DHA can lead to depression. Observational studies have also found an improvement in mood and cognition with adequate omega-3 intake. This is probably due to the fundamental roles that omega-3s fats play in the development, functioning and maintenance of the brain.
Arthritis Omega-3 in the form of fish oil, has been found to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, particularly in people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, to be effective, at least 3g of fish oil supplements have to be taken each day for three months.
Cognition A low intake of DHA and lutein may be associated with increased risk of cognitive decline in the elderly. A US study found that when DHA and lutein were added into the diet, memory scores and rates of learning increased significantly. Fish consumption is also associated with decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
ADHD A small number of research trials have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may also help reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A South Australian study gave fish-oil capsules to children with ADHD; their parents reported a significant improvement in their behaviour.
Omega-3 content of food
These 10 foods will help you keep up your omega-3 intake (see below for information on recommended intakes).
Lean red meat (125g) – 96mg
Yoghurt with omega-3 (150g tub) – 101mg
White bread fortified with omega-3 (2 slices) –123mg
Eggs (2 large) – 180mg
Diego omega-3 wrap (43g) – 255mg
Tofu (125g) – 300mg
Walnuts (30g) – 1890mg
Swordfish, barbecued (125g) – 2040mg
Canned salmon (150g) – 2640mg
Tasmanian salmon (150g) – 4920mg
How much omega-3 do you need?
The Adequate Intake table (see below) shows the daily amount of both short- and long-chain omega-3 fats needed to maintain normal bodily functions and health, as recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
However, to prevent chronic disease, higher amounts of omega-3 fats are needed. According to the Heart Foundation, 500mg of EPA and DHA, and at least 2g of ALA, are needed per day to lower the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Adequate Intake (AI) for omega-3 fats (according to the National Health and Medical Research Council)
Age and gender
EPA and DHA (mg/day)
Children 1-3 years
Children 4-8 years
Boys 9-13 years
Girls 9-13 years
Boys 14-18 years
Girls 14-18 years
Men 19+ years
Women 10+ years
Reaching your omega-3 intake
To reach the adequate intake of both short- and long-chain omega-3 fats each day, follow these tips:
ALA: Eat a variety of plant-based foods such as linseeds, soy and walnuts each day.
EPA and DHA: Include at least two to three serves (150g per serve) of oily fish each week; choose omega-3-fortified food and drink and take fish oil supplements (the Heart Foundation recommends one to two fish oil capsules daily). Look for those with the highest EPA and DHA content. Many 1000mg capsules contain 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA, giving a total marine omega-3 content of 300mg.
Animal vs vegetable sources
Current research shows that it's the long chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA that provide us with the most health benefits. The short-chain omega-3 fat ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but this conversion is not very efficient, with only 5-10% converted. It is therefore important that the long-chain omega-3 fats are included in your diet. Vegetarians can obtain their long-chain omega-3 fats from algae or food products fortified with algae.