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Updated 25 January 2017

Get the facts on omega fats

Omega fatty acids play an important role in keeping your body healthy and functioning at its best. Get the lowdown on omega-3, -6 and -9 and the types of foods you should be eating to ensure you’re getting enough of all three.

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Fat is an essential part of our diet and supports many metabolic processes. To achieve optimal health and reduce the risk of chronic disease, it is important to include fat in your diet. 

We need to focus on the best types and the correct quantity of fats to obtain the maximum benefit. 

Let’s take a look at three types of omega fatty acids: omega-3, -6 and -9.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 is an important family of fats that come in different forms: 

1. ALA

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) cannot be made in the body and must therefore be obtained from our diet. 

ALA is found mainly in:
• Vegetable oils 
• Rapeseed and linseed (flaxseed)
• Nuts (walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts)
• Green leafy vegetables


 

2. EPA and DHA
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain fats that can be made from ALA in our bodies. They have the most direct health benefits. Making EPA and DHA from ALA is a slow process and produces only small amounts.

 
The best way to ensure that we are obtaining an adequate amount of EPA and DHA is to eat foods rich in these fats. Fish, especially fatty fish (e.g. pilchards, sardines and salmon) are good sources of EPA and DHA. 

White fish contains some omega-3 but at much lower levels than fatty fish. Canned versions of fatty fish such as tuna can be a source of omega-3s but may have most of these fats removed during processing.

 

What are the key benefits of omega-3 fats?

Marine-derived omega-3s have been linked to a number of benefits in various disease- and inflammatory-related conditions.

Key benefits include:

  • A lower risk of heart disease
  • Prevention and treatment of depression
  • Memory and brain health
  • Supporting optimal eye function
  • Healthy development of babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Top tip: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming three portions of fatty fish per week.


Sustainable fish sources

While the main sources of omega-3 are marine fish oils, the availability of certain species of fish is declining globally.

It is important to choose fish from sustainable sources. You can do this by looking for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified products or consulting the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI).

Omega-6 fats

Like omega-3, omega-6 are also essential fatty acids, because our bodies can’t make them. We therefore need to obtain them through our diet. Arachidonic acid (AA) is made from omega-6 fatty acids.

AA can have anti-inflammatory effects, but may also promote inflammation.  

Which foods are sources of omega-6 fats?

  • Corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils
  •  
  • Meat, poultry and eggs

What are omega-9 fats?

Unlike the omega-3 and omega-6 fats, omega-9 fats do not need to be provided by the foods we eat as they can also be created by our bodies from unsaturated fats.

Examples include oleic acid, which is found in oils like olive oil and macadamia oil, and erucic acid which is found in rapeseed oil.

To supplement or not to supplement

Eating foods that are high in omegas is the best way to ensure you are getting enough of the right fats in your diet. Supplementation should only be considered when you find it difficult to consume enough of these foods.  

When it comes to omega supplementation, it would only be advisable to take a pure omega-3 supplement, providing the correct amount of EPA and DHA, when your fatty fish intake is low. 

The South African diet tends to be higher in omega-6s and therefore supplementation is less likely to be necessary. Because of the fact that omega-9 fats are made by the body, it is not necessary to obtain these through supplements. 

Top tip: It is important to consult your healthcare professional before taking supplements of any kind.


References:
1. The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (2014). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults. J Nutr Diet 114(1): 136 – 149.
2. Omega 6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory from the American Heart Association Nutrition Subcommittee of the Council of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism; Council on Cardiovascular Nursing and Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Harris et al, Circulation 2009.
3. What health professionals should know about omega 3 fatty acid supplements. Opperman M, SAJCN 2013
4. Smuts CM & Wolmarans P. (2013) The importance of the quality or type of fat in the diet: a food-based dietary guideline for South Africa. SAJCN 26(3): s87-99.
5. Mahan LK, Escott -Stump S, Krause’s Food Nutrition and Diet Therapy 14th edition Philadelphia, Saunders 2016

Disclaimer - The publication is provided through a sponsorship from Pfizer in the interests of continuous medical education. Notwithstanding Pfizer's sponsorship of this publication, neither Pfizer nor its subsidiary or affiliated companies shall be liable for any damages, claims, liabilities, costs or obligations arising from the misuse of the information provided in this publication. 
Readers are advised to consult their health care practitioner for specific information on personal health matters as this is not the intention or purpose of the publication. Specific medical advice or recommendations on the clinical management of patients will not be provided by Pfizer. In this regard Pfizer does not support the use of products for off label indications, nor dosing which falls outside the approved label recommendations and readers must refer to the Package Insert of any product for full prescribing guidelines.


 
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