Around 84 per cent of the world’s population is deficient in omega-3s, and many Australian are at risk of sub-optimal levels, due to poor dietary choices. According to a recent survey, three-quarters of Australians are not aware of what omega-3s are.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that are important for overall health. Found predominately in fish and some plant sources, they’re essential as our body can’t make these fats on their own.
Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3s are necessary for brain function, reducing symptoms such as pain and stiffness in osteoarthritis sufferers, helping to reduce swelling and inflammation of painful joints, and lowering blood triglyceride levels. Most importantly of all, they may be the main way to reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your cardiovascular system.
So how can you ensure you are getting enough omega-3s from your diet?
We speak with omega-3 expert Dr Bill Harris to find out more:
What are the most important omega-3s?
There are two most important omega-3 fatty acids are EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA – docosahexaenoic acid. These are found mainly in fish and other seafoods. A third omega-3, ALA – alpha-linolenic acid, is found in a range of plants foods, most predominantly in flax seeds, soy oil and walnuts. ALA must be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, but this is a very slow process.
How can omega-3s boost my heart health?
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids affect heart disease risk in part by reducing inflammation throughout the body. It’s this inflammation which can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly in high doses (3-4000 mg/day) also decrease triglycerides and lower blood pressure slightly.
Omega-3s also reduce the tendency of blood to clot when it shouldn’t, and can help prevent the development of an irregular heartbeat. By eating foods which have a high tissue level of marine omega-3s, you’ll be doing your heart some good. Your best choices include salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, anchovies and tuna.
How much omega-3s should I be eating?
According the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Australians are recommended to include two to three servings of fish every week to obtain at least 250-500 mg of marine-sourced (DHA+EPA) omega-3s. However, according to a recent survey, more than half (52%) of Australians are not meeting this.
How do I boost my omega-3 levels if I don’t like fish?
If you don’t particularly like fish, or find it difficult to eat it as often as recommended, taking a daily supplement of essential fatty acids may be of benefit. The most common way in Western countries to achieve the recommended intakes of 250-500 mg of EPA+DHA per day is to take an omega-3 supplement.
There are many varieties, but they may be generally broken down into three categories by original source: fish, krill or algae. All three types can provide significant amounts of EPA+DHA, and they constitute the surest way to guarantee optimal intakes.
Remember to always check with your healthcare practitioner to ensure that a supplement is right for you before adding to your diet.
How do I tell if I’m eating enough omega-3s?
Finding out your omega-3 levels means that you can empower yourself about your health, but the only way to accurately know you omega-3 number is to measure your levels.
The Omega-3 Index Test is a simple finger-prick blood test which measures omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, in the red blood cells. The target Omega-3 Index is 8-12 per cent – a range which is associated with the lowest risk for developing cardiovascular disease. An Omega-3 Index of 4 per cent or less is linked with a relatively high risk.
In Australia the average omega-3 level is low and falls between 4-6 per cent. Omega-3 Index testing is available through select practitioners and pharmacies.
Please visit www.omega3.net.au for a full list of participants.
About Dr Bill Harris
Dr. Harris is an internationally recognised expert on omega-3 fatty acids and how they can benefit patients with heart disease. He obtained his PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Minnesota, and completed post-doctoral fellowships in Clinical Nutrition and Lipid Metabolism with Dr Bill Connor at the Oregon Health Sciences University.
His interest in omega-3 fatty acids began with his postdoctoral work when he published his first study on the effects of salmon oil on serum lipids in humans (1980). Since that time, he has been the recipient of five NIH grants for studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) on human health. He has over 190 publications relating to omega-3 fatty acids in medical literature and was an author on two American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statements on fatty acids: ‘Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease’ (2002), and ‘Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease’ (2009) both published in the AHA’s flagship journal Circulation.