Health experts regularly remind us that a healthy and balanced diet reduces the risk of disease and is beneficial to the ageing process. We know that foods rich in omega-3 are a key contributor to a healthy diet, but what are omega-3s and how much do we need?
Essentially, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are healthy fats that are important for human brain functioning and maintenance, as well as for physical growth and development. They provide valuable support at all stages of our lives – for babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding right through to our most senior citizens.
Research shows that omega-3s can reduce inflammation and help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. There’s also evidence to suggest that they support eye health and can help combat depression and anxiety, as well as playing a role in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
There are three main types of omega-3: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and all three are most easily found in food. This is because while the human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials, it cannot manufacture omega-3s. Fortunately, there is an abundance of natural sources of these essential fats available to us. ALA is naturally occurring in certain plants, nuts and seeds, while the richest sources of EPA and DHA are fish and marine algae, which is where fish get them from in the food chain.
Oily fish such as mackerel, herring and salmon have the highest EPA and DHA content, which is why many health authorities around the world recommend the regular consumption of such widely available and affordable species. White fish contains some omega-3, but at much lower levels than oily fish.
While there is no set recommended standard dose of omega-3 fats for human wellbeing, many health organisations promote a daily dose of between 250 and 500 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA for healthy adults, with higher levels of 1,000 to 2,000mg widely advocated for the prevention of memory loss, depression and heart problems. With a typical 150g serving of farmed salmon fillet containing around 500mg of EPA and DHA, this means we should be eating oily fish and seafood a minimum of two to three times a week.
Despite the widely documented benefits of an appropriate omega-3 intake, the consumption in many countries still falls well short of these recommendations, even when factoring in the growing omega-3 supplement market, which is now estimated to comprise more than 20 million regular takers.
Indeed, a recent global scientific survey of the presence of EPA and DHA in the bloodstream of healthy adults found that most of the countries and regions of the world have omega-3 levels that are considered low to very low. Most notably, the report found that western countries recorded an omega-3 blood index of less than 4%, much lower than the proposed healthy range of 8–12%. Regions that were at acceptable levels included the Sea of Japan, Scandinavia and areas with indigenous populations or populations not yet fully adapted to westernised food habits.
Today’s consumers are increasingly health conscious, and eating more omega-3 fats is one of the easiest health choices any of us can make. Thankfully, we don’t need to look any further than the wide choice of delicious sustainably caught and responsibly farmed fish available in our stores and on our favourite restaurant menus.