Not everyone will be familiar with the term ‘EFA’s’ and how relevant it is to diet and health, however many more people are well aware of the nutritional term ‘Omega 3’ and the beneficial health aspects of a diet rich in this nutrient. In this article we explore how important it is to have a diet balanced in EFA’s; what they are, and why certain EFA’s are so important to health – for everyone in the family from the youngest member to the oldest.
EFA’s – Essential Fatty Acids for Life
The acronym ‘EFA’s’ stands for ‘Essential Fatty Acids’. We all need EFA’s at all stages of our life in the ‘correct balance’ to support good health. We can only get EFA’s from food or supplement sources, and here the ultimate health benefits will depend on a range of factors including the quality and nutritive value (of the food or supplement), plus the balance of our overall diet.
Omega 3 & 6 – The Correct Balance
The phrase ‘correct balance’ is key here for all of us and our health – from babies upward. In recent decades many of us, particularly in the developed western nations, have a diet that is rich in foods containing the EFA’s termed ‘Omega 6 fatty acids’, and conversely a diet very low in the foods containing EFA’s termed ‘Omega 3 fatty acids’. Unfortunately for those with such a diet it is potentially very bad for long term health. Whilst what we all ideally need, from birth upward, is a diet with excellent levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 and Fish
In recent years there has been a conscious effort by health organisations and the government to educate the public on the importance of Omega 3 in the diet. The primary food source of Omega 3 is fish and especially oily fish such as mackerel and sardines; the alternative is supplements such as fish or krill oils. It is now evident that all aspects of our health are influenced by our intake of these precious nutrients, whatever our age. That is why they are now added to baby foods, and why the Government recommends we eat oily fish at least twice a week.
The health benefits of oily fish can be mainly attributed to its fatty acid content. When we ingest Omega 3 our body breaks the fatty acids down to 2 other fatty acids – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and these are the components our body uses for many essential activities such as the maintenance of vision and supporting the normal function of the heart.
The following are the valid health claims for Omega 3 consumption (subject to a daily intake of 250mg of EPA and DHA):
- Contributes to the maintenance of normal brain function
- The maintenance of normal vision
- The maintenance of normal cardiac function
- The maintenance of normal blood pressure
- The maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides
DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina. It is of critical importance for foetal development and for the growth and functional development of the brain. It is also essential to maintain normal brain function.
Understanding ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Fats
There are good fats and there are bad fats. Artificially produced trans-fatty acids are bad in any amount and saturated fats from animal products should be kept to a minimum. The best fats (or oils, rather, since they are liquid at room temperature), are those that contain the essential fatty acids, so named because without them we die. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated and grouped into two families, the Omega 6 EFA’s and the Omega 3 EFA’s.
Seemingly minor differences in their molecular structure make the two EFA families act very differently in the body. While the metabolic products of Omega 6 acids promote inflammation, blood clotting and tumour growth, the Omega 3 acids act in an entirely opposite manner.
Although we do need both Omega 3 and Omega 6, it is becoming increasingly clear that an excess of Omega 6 fatty acids can have dire consequences. Many scientists believe that a major reason for the high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging and some forms of cancer is the profound imbalance between our intakes of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. Our ancestors evolved on a diet with a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of about 1:1. A massive change in dietary habits over the last few centuries has changed this ratio to something closer to 20:1 and this spells trouble.
You can read more on this topic in our booklet ‘Fish Oil Benefits’ – which is provided further below.
How might Omega 3’s exert their beneficial effects?
Omega 3 seems to have anti-inflammatory and membrane-stabilising effects. Many diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis, are related to an inflammatory process, and it may be the ability of Omegas 3 to “tune down” such inflammation that helps prevent certain chronic diseases or positively affects other conditions.
Indeed, uncontrolled inflammation is now recognised as being causative in many diseases that were not previously considered classic inflammatory diseases, including asthma and several neurological disorders. Omega 3 is most bioeffective in the form of fish or krill oil, where it contains both DHA and EPA: the components for which most health benefits seem attributable.
Omega 3 is rapidly becoming an important tool in mainstream medicine. They have been documented to have numerous health benefits for every age group – from before birth to old age. Research has indicated that they:
- Help prevent heart disease and stroke and lower triglycerides;
- Play an important role during foetal development;
- May help control arthritis pain*;
- Support brain and eye function;
- May reduce diabetes risk*; and
- May improve IQ and behaviour (such as ADHD) of children and young adults*
* These are all subject to ongoing research and studies; they are not currently permitted health claims (for EPA and DHA).
Omega 3 – From Birth to Old Age
Fears of pollution in fish, scares over farmed fish, the high cost of fish and shellfish, and worries over preparing and eating bony fish have all meant that Omega 3 consumption has decreased dramatically in the UK (and other countries) over recent decades.
From birth onward babies and infants require high levels of appropriate vitamins, minerals and nutrients to support this period of dramatic growth and development. And this demand carries on into teenage years too. Good Omega 3 levels are needed for a range of health functions particularly the development of the brain and eyes.
Getting good Omega 3 levels into infants and teenagers may be difficult as they are such ‘picky’ eaters. For others it may be because they are raised on restricted diets. If appropriate levels are not being provided in the diet then a supplement form of Omega 3 is to be advised – there are suitable non-fish options available for vegetarians and vegans (details below).
In adulthood and all the way through to retirement ages suitable Omega 3 levels continue to be important for both men and women – particularly in respect of heart health. (Subject to a daily intake of 250mg of EPA and DHA, Omega 3 contributes to the maintenance of normal cardiac function, normal blood pressure and normal blood concentrations of triglycerides).
Many people take Omega 3 supplements such as fish and krill oils to help support joint health. And this ranges from those carrying out lots of physical activity to older people wishing to help maintain joint health or to ease stiff joints.
Many positive research studies have been carried out in regards to Omega 3 effects on joint health. However we would make it clear that there are currently no permitted health claims for Omega 3 / EPA & DHA in respect of joint health from the regulatory authority EFSA (The European Food Safety Authority).
Omega 3 Supplements – What to choose?
Fish and Krill oil supplements are available in a capsule or liquid form. It is important to check the all important levels of EPA and DHA in a supplement between different suppliers. The krill or fish oils will come in a liquid or capsule form yet only a proportion of each mg will contain EPA and DHA – and this will differ between products. So don’t focus, for example, on the amount of liquid in a krill capsule but the amount of beneficial EPA and DHA.
Fish Oils are either made from fish livers, body fish, or a combination of both. Fish liver oils are high in vitamins A and D as these are stored in the livers of oily fish. Whole body fish oils only contain a small part of the livers in total and hence a much lower level of vitamins A and D. Cod liver oil for example is high in vitamins A and D. This is an important point for certain groups of people, primarily pregnant women and also older men. Pregnant women are advised by the NHS not to have too much vitamin A (Retinol) in either food or supplement forms.
Krill Oil supplements are also high in EPA and DHA. However unlike fish oils the Omega 3 fatty acids in krill are more efficiently absorbed by our body as they are carried to our body cells in a ‘phospholipid’ form. Suitable krill supplements also contain good levels of the naturally occurring nutrients ‘Astaxanthin’ and ‘Choline’. More details on krill and krill supplements can be found further below in a link to an earlier article on this topic.
In summary when it comes to fish or krill oil supplements you should look for a product that provides high levels of Omega 3 EPA/DHA, and that is pure, and pollution free. The fish liver oils are much richer in vitamin A (and vitamin D), however pollution in fish is concentrated in the liver so you need to ensure the product is pollutant free, and for certain people vitamin A rich fish oils are to be avoided.
EFA’s – Omega 3 for Preconception & Pregnancy
Omega 3 is particularly important for pregnancy, breastfeeding and subsequent development of the baby. Suitable Omega 3 levels can help a baby’s nervous system and vision to develop. That is why they are now added to baby foods, and why the Government recommends we eat oily fish at least twice a week (recommendations vary during pregnancy and preconception).Good Omega 3 levels are beneficial as part of preconception planning for both men and women.
The primary food source of Omega 3 is fish and especially oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Shellfish, algae and seed oils such as flaxseed are other excellent sources (the latter ideal for vegetarians and vegans). Fish and crustacean sources have positive benefits requiring much smaller daily amounts than seed oils, for example, and provide omega 3 in a form that is well utilised by the body.
The NHS advice for women planning pregnancy and those pregnant is to avoid some types of fish (normally fish at high risk of mercury pollution such as tuna and swordfish) and limit the amount they eat to two portions a week. This is because pollutants found in oily fish may affect the development of a baby in the womb in the future.
Many people prefer to take Omega 3 supplements rather than eat fish. The most popular supplements are fish oil and krill oils in capsules or liquid. However the advice for pregnant women and those planning a baby is to avoid fish oil supplements that comprise fish livers; these are high in vitamin A (retinol), which can be harmful to your unborn baby. Heavy metals can also accumulate in the liver of oily fish. Pregnant women are advised to avoid taking supplements that contain vitamin A as retinol.
Fish oils made from whole body fish excluding the livers and krill oils are naturally rich sources of Omega 3 – make sure you select a reputable supplier who guarantee pollution free and ethically sourced oils.
N.B. It is advisable to stop taking fish, krill or flax oil about 10 days before the birth due date and to resume about 10 days after. This is simply because omega-3 thins the blood and in the event of surgical intervention during the birth it might serve to increase the risk of excessive bleeding.
Omega 3 for Vegetarians and Vegans
For vegetarians and vegans who do not eat fish a good supplement option for rich Omega 3 is flaxseed oil. For flaxseed oil supplements you will look for a pure oil rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), organic so it is free from herbicides, and cold-pressed, which means that it is unprocessed and that the fatty acid content will remain unharmed in the extraction.
Vegetarian and vegan diets should be rich in omega 3 from nuts and seeds. However our body does not convert vegetable sources of omega 3 well and hence vegetarians and vegans require much larger amounts than those people that consume oily fish or take omega 3 supplements made from fish or crustacean sources.
High quality organic cold pressed Flax Oil (made from flaxseeds) is an ideal way for vegetarians and vegans to increase their Omega 3 intake; it can also be added to salads or drizzled over vegetables.
It should also be noted that if you have a diet high in the Omega 6 essential fatty acid this will affect your Omega 3 levels as both Omega 3 and 6 compete for the same convertase enzyme and Omega 6 has priority of uptake.
Krill and Fish Oil are not suitable for those who are allergic to shellfish, fish or fish-related products.
If you are considering taking Fish, Krill or Flaxseed Oil and you have a deficiency of the liver, or if you are on antithrombotic drugs (e.g Warfarin or Heparin), consult your doctor first.
Cytoplan Blog: Krill Oil Supplements
Cytoplan Blog: Children, Sleep Quality, Behaviour and Omega 3 / Omega 3, Pregnancy and Children
Cytoplan Blog: A closer look at Omega 3 – EPA/DHA & the latest Research
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01684 310099
You can also download the PDF document with the following link (sorry – it may not work for every browser): Cytoplan Fish Oils Leaflet.pdf