Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids have benefits of protection from heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and eye diseases as well as enhancing brain function and helpful in depression.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are fats that are essential for our body but the body cannot synthesize them. These fats are classified as essential because they manufacture and repair cell membranes and expel harmful waste products. They produce prostaglandins, which regulate several physiological functions including blood pressure, heart rate, blood clotting and immune function. If we do not get these essential fats, then we may get many health problems.
Essential Fatty Acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. There are two families of EFAs: omega 3 fatty acid and omega 6 fatty acid. There is a third one, omega 9 fatty acid, but as our body can manufacture it in adequate amount, it is not in EFA category.
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Omega 3 fatty acids are derived from linolenic acid, omega 6 from linoleic acid and omega 9 from oleic acid. Omega 3 (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega 6 (linoleic acid) fatty acids play an important role in several physiological functions in our body. The body converts alpha-linolenic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). EPA helps in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, while DHA is necessary for brain and nerve development.
As our body is unable to manufacture omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, we should eat foods containing these fatty acids.
Dietary sources of Omega 3 essential fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid):
- Flax oil (linseed oil - the richest natural source), flax seeds
- hemp seed oil (contains both omega 3 and omega 6 fats, best balance of omega 6:3)
- pumpkin seeds
- rapeseed oil
- walnuts & walnut oil (contains both omega 3 and omega 6 fats, but richer in omega 6)
- soybeans & soybean oil (contains both omega 3 and omega 6 fats, but richer in omega 6) and
- dark green leafy vegetables like seaweed, broccoli, mustard greens, spinach and kale.
- spring greens, dark salad leaves, cabbage, Brussels sprouts & parsley
- Salmon fish, Mackerel, Lake trout, Herring, Sardines, Albacore tuna and Halibut
Dietary sources of Omega 6 fatty acid (linoleic acid)
Corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil.
Dietary sources of EPA and DHA
Salmon, tuna, halibut, herring fishes, sardines, rainbow trout, eels, kippers and mackerel fishes. Certain types of algae contain DHA
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. All polyunsaturated oils are highly susceptible to damage from heat, light and oxygen. When exposed to these elements for too long, the fatty acids are oxidized producing free radicals, which are believed to promote cancer and other degenerative diseases. The omega 3 oils should be used for dressings and not for deep frying.
How much Omega 3 fatty acid?
The Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences issued Adequate Intake (AI) of essentail fatty acids as follows:
For male teenagers and adult men: 1.6 grams per day.
For female teenagers and adult women: 1.1 grams per day.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored Workshop (1999) recommended that people should consume at least 2% of their total daily calories as omega 3 fats. This means that your diet should provide you at least 4 grams of omega 3 fatty acids if you consume 2000 calories each day.
You can meet out this requirement by eating omega 3 rich foods. Two tablespoons of flax seeds contain 3.5 grams of omega 3, while a 4 ounce piece of salmon contains 1.5 grams of omega 3 fat. You may also eat breads and butter with omega 3 fats.
Most people consume a much higher amount of omega 6 fatty acid than omega 3 fatty acid. Omega 6 and Omega 3 essential fatty acids should be consumed in a ratio of about 3:1, i.e. for three omega 6 eat one omega 3 fatty acid.