Unsaturated “Omega” fats 101

The idea of healthy and not healthy (or good and bad) foods is a concept that I struggle with. My position is that with moderation and balance all foods can be included in a healthy diet. When it comes to fat and types of fats, science has shown us that there are some types of fats that do seem to have more benefits than others. On the other hand, there are some that may increase health risks when too much is consumed.

In my blog, “Why do we need fats?” I have provided more detail about nutritional fat found in food, including saturated fat, trans fat and unsaturated fats. In this blog I will focus more on unsaturated fats, including different types and how they can help our bodies.

Types of Unsaturated fats

Fats are categorized based on their chemical structure, specifically the number of double bonds between carbons.

  • Saturated fat – Fat without double bonds (meaning all carbons are linked to another compound i.e. “the carbons are saturated”)
  • Monounsaturated – Fat with one double bond (mono means one)
  • Polyunsaturated – Fat with two or more double bonds (poly means more than one). These include omega fats that we hear so much about

The body uses the different types of fats in different ways. As previously mentioned, saturated fats do have a role in your body. However, taking in too much saturated fat can have health risks. It is recommended that people limit saturated fat intake and consume more mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Please refer to my last blog for more information.

What are OMEGA FATS?

There are different types of polyunsaturated fats. The classification of these fats depends on where double bonds are found within the chemical structure.  The more commonly known polyunsaturated fats are Omega 3, 6 and 9.

The number 3, 6 or 9 simply refers to where the last double bonds is located. For example, for Omega 3 fats, the last double bond is found 3 carbons from the tail or end.

Omega fats have a variety of health benefits including:

  • Omega 3 fats are essential fatty acids that the body cannot make. This means that we have to obtain them from our food. Omega-3 fats are important for heart health, the immune system, mental health, bone health and they help reduce inflammation and can improve brain health, including reducing risks of dementia.
  • Omega 6 fats are essential fatty acids. They are important for our immune system and heart health.  
  • Omega 9 fats are non-essential, meaning that our bodies can make them. They are important for heart health, the nervous system and the brain.

To make things a little more confusing, there are different types of omega 3 fatty acids. The most commonly known types are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): These are known to help reduce inflammation and depression. EPA is also thought to aid the immune system.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Makes up 8% of the brain and is needed for the brain to develop and work properly. DHA is also thought to aid the immune system.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): Mainly used by the body for energy, but ALA can be converted by the body to EPA and DHA .

Where are these Omegas found?

  • Monounsaturated – found in avocados and olive oil, nuts and canola oils
  • Polyunsaturated – found in most vegetable oils
    • Omega-3 found in fatty/oily fish, such as tuna and salmon, as well as some grains, such as flax and chia seeds
    • Omega-6 found in vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish. Most individuals obtain an adequate amount of omega 6 as it is available in a wider variety of foods
    • Omega-9 found in vegetable oils, especially olive oil, nuts and avocado.

How much do we need?

Research has shown us that the ratio (proportion) of how much of each type being consumed is also important for balanced, healthy fat consumption. Most guidelines suggest a ratio of 4 to 1 of omega 6 to omega 3. That said, it is not particularly realistic to expect anyone to measure their omega intake so closely. Again, it is better to focus on balanced healthy diet with good variety of omega sources, including vegetable oils like olive oil and sunflower oil, nuts, seeds, grains such as flax or chia and fatty fish.

Do you need a supplement?

If you are consuming foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet, probably not. Some individuals may benefit from extra omega 3 intake. A local registered dietitian can assess your nutrition status and advise how to obtain a better balance of fat intake through both food and supplementation, if necessary. If you are interested in consulting at dietitian please check out the Nutrition Tab of this site to learn more about the services I provide through my private practice. https://tanyabrownrd.wordpress.com/nutrition-services/

Bottom line

Omega fats are good for you and are important to have in your diet, but it is important not to become too focused on any individual nutrient like omegas. Counting and analyzing everything you eat can be very frustrating and is also very time consuming.  When focusing on only one nutrient, it is possible to lose sight of the many other important ones that are needed. Instead strive for an overall balanced healthy diet with a good level of variety. Also, don’t forget to move. Exercise, even as simple as walking, is not only good for the body but also the mind and soul. And if you enjoy it, eat some saturated fat-filled meals once and a while. It is okay! ENJOY while leaving any judgment at home.

This concludes my blog series “But Mummy, why do we have to eat? Please let me know if you liked it by commenting and liking.  Continue to follow my blog website, Intragram or Twitter for more blogs, where I continue to simplify nutrition concepts.

Disclaimer:  The above information is intended for general public education and is not intended to be dietetic advice in any respect or to any person. Use of this information does not make any person a direct client of Tanya Brown,RD for any purpose and no such relationship will exist unless a formal client relationship has been entered into. Please consult your Doctor or a Registered Dietitian for individual recommendations prior to making any dietary or lifestyle changes.

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