All the other essential fatty acids have to be jealous — Omega-3s have been in the limelight for the past few years, totally outliving a mere 15 minutes of fame. So what’s all the hype about?
In a word—inflammation. Let’s try and make this explanation of omega-3 fatty acids as simple as possible. Think of your body as a scale with weights on each side; one side is full of omega-6 fatty acids, the other side has omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6s tend to promote inflammation, while omega-3s tend to counteract or prevent it.
Don’t get me wrong, we need inflammation; it helps us heal and fight infections. But we’ve got a rampant epidemic of it, and not exactly the good kind. To keep things in nice balance the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet is 2:1. Would it surprise you to hear that the typical American diet has a ratio of 6:1? Hardly the balance we’re looking for. This means that we are living in a pro-inflammatory state. To get the scales back to a good balance we need to do two things: consume fewer omega-6 fatty acids (found in processed foods), and consume more omega-3 fatty acids (found in whole foods).
But what if you don’t eat fish? How can you get enough omega-3 without fish or fish products?
In the omega-3 world there is ALA, EPA, and DHA, the latter two are where the biggest bang for your fatty acid buck is. Most plant based forms of omega-3 contain ALA, like flax seeds, walnuts, kale, chia seeds, tofu, and canola oil. Depending on your genetics, your age, and your gender, your body will do a better or worse job of converting ALA into EPA and DHA. This can be problematic, if your body doesn’t convert enough ALA to the more active forms. Your doctor can check your blood to see if you have enough DHA, and if not, a supplement may be recommended. Plant-based people can find a pure DHA from microalgae.
What’s the take home message here? Remember that this scale has two sides, the omega-6 side and the omega-3 side. To balance things out, make sure to avoid processed foods, favoring whole foods that also happen to be rich in omega-3s. If you’re worried you may not have enough DHA from your plant-based diet, talk with your doctor.