Updated: Jul 13
There’s a lot of talk about healthy fats these days (hello Keto). People are including more fat in their diets and forgetting about the fat-free diet crazes of the past.
You’ve probably heard about omega fats in the mix, but what exactly are they? In this article, you will learn:
What are the difference between the Omega 3, 6 and 9?
Which are best for autoimmune disease symptoms like pain, inflammation, skin and brain health
Why Omega 3s are so important for autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus and other rheumatic and IBD conditions
Why Omega 3s are one of my top autoimmune natural supplement recommendations
What are Omega Fats? Do they all perform the same function in our bodies?
Omegas are a group of fatty acids known as Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9. They are numerically named based on their chemical composition.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (EFA’s). The body is capable of producing some fatty acids on its own, like Omega-9 - meaning you don’t need to get them from food.
But the fatty acids the body can’t create on its own must be obtained from food, and therefore, are considered essential. Both fats are needed for good health, but most diets contain an abundance of omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
This skewed ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 is considered a cause of chronic inflammation that can lead to scary stuff, like heart attack and stroke.
A ratio of 3:1 (or 1:1) is ideal for keeping inflammation at bay, but it’s estimated that most people have a ratio closer to 20:1! That's because people rely heavily on convenience or processed foods for daily meals.
Omega 6s are found in:
Plant oils - like safflower, canola, vegetable, corn - all which are abundant in processed foods Whole foods like walnuts, hemp hearts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter
Soybeans (including tofu)
Omega 9s are found in:
Plant oils - olives, avocado, sunflower, peanut, soy, corn, nut oils
Omega 3s are found in:
In lesser degree in nuts/seeds like flax, chia, walnuts and others
Low intake of Omega-3’s means most people are missing out on the major health benefits of this essential fat.
The protective qualities of Omega-3’s include:
Improved immune system function. In fact, Omega 3 deficiencies are common with autoimmune ... either because people lack Omega-3-rich foods in their diet OR they are consuming too many Omega 6/9s in ratio of Omega 3
Decreased inflammation - some studies show that fish oil can be as effective as NSAIDs for managing pain/inflammation
Decreased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, and depression
Improved triglyceride and cholesterol values
Critical role in human development – the brain and retina contain lots of omega-3 in the form of DHA
Which foods are the best sources of Omega-3’s?
Omega-3’s actually include several types of fats, including:
ALA (alpha linolenic acid) – found in plants, like nuts and seeds
DHA/EPA – found primarily in fish
The best sources of ALA (vegetarian sources) include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Canola and soybean oil are also good sources of ALA, BUT these oils aren’t the healthy options since they quickly oxidize and turn rancid, which promotes inflammation and cancels out any beneficial effects of the omega-3s they contain.
While meat and dairy aren’t a good source of omega-3s, it’s worth noting grass fed meat and dairy contain higher amounts of omega-3s than conventional grain fed meat.
Something else to consider ... ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body for it to be utilized. This process is pretty inefficient, with estimates of 1-20% of the ALA we consume being converted into a usable form.
Although it would be hard to meet all your omega-3 needs only with sources of ALA, flax, chia, and walnuts are still healthy fats with lots of other good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
What's the best source of Omega 3s?
Since fish contains the ready-to-use EPA/DHA form, it is recommended that most people obtain their omega-3’s from fatty cold water fish, like salmon, tuna, herring, and sardines.
Did you know fish don’t actually produce the omega-3s they contain? Instead, algae makes EPA/DHA and fish accumulate the fat from the algae they eat. Cool fat fact!
ANOTHER FUN FACT: with nutrigenomic testing, you can look at your genetic capability for converting ALA to EPA/DHA. In our case, not so great, so fish is a must in managing inflammation.
How much Omega Fats should we be eating? Do I have to eat fish or take fish oil?
While there are no official recommendations for daily omega-3 intake, it’s thought most people can meet their basic omega-3 needs by consuming fish 2x/week.
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP or Autoimmune Paleo) recommends you get approximately 5 to 6 servings of fish/seafood weekly for optimum nutrition.
To avoid taking in too much mercury, a toxic heavy metal in fish, you should alternate the types of fish you eat and limit varieties known to be high in mercury. The larger the fish, the higher the mercury content.
That said, the selenium content in fish is typically higher than than the mercury content if you're eating smaller fish. Selenium naturally binds to mercury. AND we need selenium (found readily in seafood) for option health - including thyroid.
If you choose not to consume fish because of mercury or other concerns, it’s best to supplement with fish oil or, if you’re vegan - try algae oil. Fish and algae oils don’t contain mercury as a result of processing.
It’s generally considered safe to consume up to 3 - 6g of fish oil per day. If you include a high quality fish oil supplement and a variety of sources of healthy fats in your diet, you don’t have to worry about counting omega-3s.
In fact, fish oil (cod liver or other forms) is one of my #1 recommended supplements for many autoimmune disease symptoms, especially those with rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's colitis, and more. I find that many of my clients don't like fish or seafood OR they aren't able to consume enough to help bring their ratios back into balance.
For this reason, a fish oil supplement can help quickly address the deficiency.
A QUICK CAUTION ... high doses of fish oil could interfere with blood clotting. If you’re currently taking blood thinners or have surgery scheduled, you should check with a healthcare provider before supplementing.