Is there any other substance that offers a remedy for as many of our health foibles as omega-3?
Sourced from two polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and to a lesser extent alpha-linolenic acids (ALA), these essential fatty acids are considered vital to maintaining optimum brain function, heart health and even said to help inflammation and aid in easing the pain of arthritis.
In fact, to hear Dr William Harris speak about them, omega-3s are the holy grail of health and overall wellbeing:
“There are two main essential fats: omega-6 and omega-3 and both have their uses – but omega 3 is the big one,” he says.
“The primary source for these is oily fish, but they can come in plant form – things like flaxseed and soybean – but these produce a different kind of omega-3 source, ALA, which isn’t as easily converted into omega-3 as EPA and DHA.”
A professor at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, Harris has spent the past 30 years studying and testing the seemingly endless benefits that come from these essential fatty acids.
“Unlike a lot of other vitamins and mineral fads – like vitamin E and beta carotene – omega-3 has stayed the course and each new study shows the benefits it has on our health,” he says.
“Each study clarifies what it does. It’s been shown to help brain health, depression, dementia and there is something there that omega-3 helps with. It just needs to be worked out. We’re just about to start this.”
THE NEW CHOLESTEROL
Currently in Australia to launch a national omega-3 level-testing scheme called the omega-3 Index, Harris doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to expressing just how important these substances are as an indicator to our health.
“I view omega-3 as the new cholesterol,” he says.
“It’s a risk indicator for heart disease that you can actually do something about without the need for drugs. In fact, I would bet that omega-3 levels are the most important indicator of risk factors for heart disease.”
Once rolled out, the omega-3 Index will be as simple as pricking finger with a pin. According to Harris, all one needs to do is request the test from a doctor or naturopath. The sample will be forwarded on to a lab where the level of omega-3s in the blood will be tested and recorded as a percentage (“Health target levels are between eight and 12 and low is considered below four,” says Harris).
According to Harris, this will help doctors and health professionals keep track of a patient’s heart health to prevent the possibility of heart attacks.
But for all the this amazing goodness that omega-3s offer, there’s just one catch – our body doesn’t produce them naturally.
A FISHY STORY INDEED
You see, like some sort of biological joke, it seems that for all omega-3s’ benefits to the body, we can only ever get them from external sources. And the primary source of this, is fish.
Fatty, or oily, fish such as salmon with the skin on, sardines, mackerel and herring are the best sources of omega-3.
“Fish is our primary source of EPA and DHA,” says Harris.
“These have higher potency, are much more easily converted into omega-3 and there is more evidence that shows EPA and DHA are better for heart health and brain function overall.”
Obviously something that the average vegan or vegetarian might have something of an issue with. And while fish oil supplements may seem like an easy solution to making sure your brain and heart are being fed the nutrients they need, consumer advocate Choice has already pointed out that the potency of many of these isn’t high enough to offer any benefits.
So what alternatives do our non-animal eating fellows have?
Dietitian and nutritionist Lauren Blair says that, while not offering as intense a hit as their marine alternatives, there are several plant-based sources of omega-3 that vegans and vegetarians can tap into.
“Plant-based sources of omega 3 are only marginally as effective as marine-based sources of omega-3,” she explains to Fairfax.
“So vegetarians and vegans need to take a few extra steps in order to maximise their omega-3 intake. I recommend eating good sources of whole-food, plant-based omega-3 (ALAs) including walnuts, chia seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds, soy beans, seaweeds and tofu while reducing the omega-6 foods in your diet as omega-6 can prevent omega-3 from being used properly in the body.”
According to Blair, you can do this by replacing sunflower, safflower and corn oils with mustard, walnut or chia seed oil.
And while it probably won’t appeal to those who embrace an ardent natural food philosophy, Harris says that there are several exciting developments in the GM industry that could help people who either can’t or won’t eat fish get the daily dose of omega-3.
“There are some GM oils made by Monsanto, one called Soy Mega, which is a derivative of the soybean and contains SDA, a compound one step closer to EPA than ALA. But, the crux is that it’s GM food which most vegans are not inclined to eat and also made by Monsanto, which doesn’t have the best of reputations.
“There is also the possibility of a supplement for vegans that uses an algae called OVEGA 3 and this has half a gram of EPA and DHA in each capsule.”