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Let’s talk about omega-3 fats! These are one of the two essential fats, and while you may have heard some things, I think you might be missing the whole story.
That’s why, today, I’m going to break down what they are, why they’re relevant, and what you need to know.
What Are Fats?
Fats are things that we need some versions of, and there are two key ones at play here:
- Linolenic Acid
- Linoleic Acid
These are two that we are simply unable to produce inside our own bodies. That is why we call them “essential fats” (Read More: Even More Research About Fats).
This is also because we know them to be essential components of the immune system.
We need them for both starting and regulating inflammation. There have even been cases where people have been deficient in omega-3 fats.
Key Insight: To be honest, it has been rather rare, and typically occurs when someone requires all their nourishment through intravenous methods.
Omega-3 Fats & Tissue Hormones
I want to start by sharing an image with you that I think is going to be very helpful:
On the left side, we have the omega-3 “family” of fats. At the very top, we can see linolenic acid as the main omega-3 fat that we require.
From there, our body can undergo chemical reactions of:
- Further desaturation
Each of these processes turn linolenic acid into the active omega-3 fats known as EPA and DHA (which you can also see further down on the left hand side).
This graph may not show it, but there are even some things that linolenic acid does on its own that are worth mentioning.
It is not ultimately just a source of EPA and DHA. Instead, it is an important molecule on its own for your body.
To that point, there are many cases where people have linolenic acid but have a hard time converting it (as mentioned).
In those cases, we think about the activity of the enzymes and it is kind of odd. Paradoxically, those that consume the most fat have the hardest time converting that fat into these essential fats1.
EPA & DHA: The Other Important Fats
So, why is it important for linolenic acid to be converted into EPA and DHA?
Typically, they can be found in a pre-converted state in fish and fish oil. While they are present in other foods, they can’t be found in amounts that are truly relevant.
I will often hear about how grass-fed meats are often a source of both these fats. While it is, it’s not enough to make a measurable difference.
Key Insight: While grass-fed meat may have amounts of EPA, we’re talking about 20 milligrams per serving. Simply not enough to make a difference. Believe it or not, the amounts are typically higher in commercial meat!
While there is a higher overall percent in grass-fed meat, you’ll be likely to find more EPA in total through commercial meats. That said, both are very small and negligible amounts.
Bottom Line: You’ll find these fats by bringing in more fish through your diet, or through converting linolenic acid.
Linolenic Acid: Sources
We see linolenic acid from many vegetable fats and oils. Most prominently, flax oil is the densest known source of linolenic acid.
There are fairly good amounts also found in:
Given our health and nutritional status, we can then convert that acid into the other fats that we need throughout our body.
What About Omega-6 Fats?
This is something we won’t touch on today, because I’m going to go in-depth on it in another article. That said, the short thing to know is that they are not bad.
In fact, we need them! There may not even be a ratio to omega-3 and omega-6 fats that is truly important for your health.
Instead, it may be more a matter of needing some of both. We’ll come back to that in a future discussion, though, so stay tuned!
EPA: Conversion and Amounts
Earlier, I briefly touched on that issue of conversion. One interesting thing about EPA is that it may have a lot to do with gender.
In fact, women may be better at converting linolenic acid into EPA and DHA than men2.
From there, though, we really need to dig deep and think about amounts. What amounts are we talking about?
Typically, the amounts come into account in a good way. Let’s take flax oil as one example. You may have 2,000-3,000 milligrams of essential fats in a tablespoon of flax oil.
Even given the low converting percentage of 10-15%, you can still net hundreds of milligrams of both EPA and DHA.
Essential Fatty Acids: How Much In A Day?
With essential fats, in general, it is always tricky when we discuss how many you need in a day.
I mentioned before about how we learned about deficiencies through those fed intravenously3. That’s really just about the only case we have seen of what we might call an “overt deficiency.”
There were some groups of children, in the past, who were fed skim milk before we knew about infant formula. In those cases, they may have developed an omega-6 deficiency (but not omega-3).
While we know that the primary goal is not to skate by deficiency, but to have optimal amounts of essential fatty acids.
Those that have better amounts typically have:
- Stronger regulation of inflammation
- Lower rates of all chronic disease
So, how much do we really need then?
It turns out that the amounts of linolenic acid that we may need are not that large at all. From looking at populations of those who received their nutrition through an IV, that we need around a gram or so every day of linolenic acid.
Sources typically vary, but let’s go with the most recent data from the Institute of Medicine4.
Omega-3 fats (what we know as alpha-linolenic acid):
- Adult men: 1.6 g per day
- Adult women: 1.1 grams per day
- Pregnancy: 1.4 grams per day
- Lactating: 1.3 grams per day
Key Insight: As little as 0.3 grams (300 mg) per day can prevent deficiency symptoms in those on parenteral nutrition.
We can easily get this from a serving of walnuts, a serving of flax seeds, of chia seeds, or even a serving of cold-water fish.
Bottom Line: To be fair, this is more of a daily average. While you don’t need the full amount every day, because some stays in the body, but you should be averaging it over the week.
Omega-3 Fats & Fish
The funny thing about this topic is that the differences between farmed fish and wild fish were not too significant at all.
For sure, though, it helps to be aware of sustainability and what it means to choose between farmed and wild-caught fish.
But, in terms of omega-3 fats, you can do well with just about any kind of fish.
Action Steps: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Basically, what I want you to know is that you can easily meet your omega-3 fat needs. In fact, all it might take is a teaspoon of flax oil every day (or fatty fish on alternating days).
It is entirely achievable, and it should be something you pursue to ensure you are reaching optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids. There is no denying that.
As I mentioned before though, those who may not utilize plant-based acids as well include:
- Men in general
- The elderly
- Those on high-fat diets
In those cases, you may need to look into doubling your dose to help ensure you’re at the best level for your unique needs.
Overall, I am always going to encourage low doses of purified omega-3 fats from fish oil, in coordination with a diet that is high in linolenic acid from plant foods (Read More: Should You Be Taking Fish Oil?).
Your Optimal Health Starts Here
I’m always happy to share what I know, and what studies show, about the pressing concerns and questions surrounding your health.
That said, I need your help to take the next step. If you’re concerned about the health of your thyroid, and your health more generally, please take the Thyroid Quiz today (Click Here: Take The Quiz).
It can give you lots of the great information you need, and can help you make critical decisions to benefit your thyroid on a long-term basis. I hope you’ll give it a try.
1 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6270521
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12323085
3 – https://books.google.com/books?id=y60fHrX-6eoC&pg=PA442&lpg=PA442&dq=barr+et+al+,+1981%3B+collins+et+al+,+1971%3B+goodgame+et+al+,+1978%3B+jeppesen+et+al+,+1998%3B+wong+and+deitel,+1981&source=bl&ots=XbplI4eZqf&sig=ACfU3U2iIqWq8pTwSzC0uKx4oXW-VsHQjg
4 – https://www.nal.usda.gov/sites/default/files/fnic_uploads/energy_full_report.pdf
P.S. Whenever you are ready, here is how I can help you now:
1. Download and use my Favorite Recipes Cookbook Here
2. Check out my podcast Medical Myths, Legends, and Fairytales Here
3. Come see one of my Doctors that specialize in Thyroid Care Here
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet and The Metabolism Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.