The Omega. No, we aren’t talking about the Greek letter; we are talking about a type of dietary fat. The omega fats are not only healthy sources of fat; they are necessary for normal physiological functioning. In other words, your body needs them to stay healthy.
Dietary fats, similar to carbohydrates, are often demonized as being “bad” for you. Like anything, balance is the key. While there are types of dietary fats we encourage people to limit or avoid (too much saturated fat and trans fats), the human body needs fat. Without a balanced intake, human health suffers. Dietary fat plays crucial roles in a healthy body; these roles include:
• providing energy
• manufacturing and balancing of hormones
• forming cell membranes
• Forming the brain and nervous system
• transporting fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K)
• providing two essential fatty acids we cannot make ourselves — omega-6 and omega-3
Let’s focus on the last point — we need to obtain omegas through our daily diet. As dietary fat goes, the omegas (along with the monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados) are healthy types of fats. This means they improve overall health when consumed in the appropriate amounts and ratios.
When we look at the modern diet, we note an overconsumption of the omega-6s and an under-consumption of the omega-3s. Why is this important? The omega-6 fats (found in flaxseed, canola oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, green leaves, meat from corn-fed animals etc.) free certain signaling molecules that promote inflammation, pain, airway and blood vessel constriction and blood clotting. While these responses sound unpleasant (and they often are), we need these mechanisms to function properly.
In contrast, the omega-3 fats (found in egg yolks, cold-water fish, shellfish, etc.), have the opposite effect. These fats reduce blood clotting, pain, inflammation, dilation of blood vessels and airways. The omega-3s are also important for brain and eye development (especially during pregnancy), and reduce cholesterol. Some scientific research suggests a consumption of omega-3s may help preserve brain function; however, more research is needed to draw definite conclusions.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish (fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel or herring) twice a week. The AHA further recommends consuming 12g/day for women and 17g/day for men of omega-6 fats. If your access to these fats are limited, supplements are often recommended; however, supplement sources should be monitored by a dietitian or physician. Think of the omegas as a “yin-yang” relationship. Both are critical to health, but we must balance the intake to optimize the benefits.
• It is recommended you talk to your health care provider before making drastic changes to your diet.
Erin Nitschke is a health and human performance educator, NSCA Certified Personal Trainer, and ACE Health Coach & Fitness Nutrition Specialist. To contact Nitschke, email firstname.lastname@example.org.