Published Nov 4, 2020
Despite being calorific, our body needs a certain amount of fat to stay healthy. But it’s the type of fat that’s important. Good fats are generally the unsaturated fats whilst bad fats are the saturated fats.
One of the good fats are the omega fatty acids – omega 3, 6 and 9. So what are the omega fatty acids, and why do we need them?
A quick lesson in chemistry
To fully understand omega fatty acids, we first need to talk about the differences between omega 3, omega 6 and omega 9 fatty acids.
Fatty acids are the ‘building blocks’ of fats. Grouped together in certain ways, they form fats, either saturated or unsaturated. Unsaturated fats are the good guys and saturated fats are mostly the bad guys (I’m looking at you, saturated but oh-so-healthy coconut oil).
Fatty acids are made up of chains of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms, how many of each atom dictates which fatty acid it becomes. Imagine these atoms like beads on a necklace. Sometimes, the carbon atoms/beads in the chain have one bond holding them together, forming a saturated fat.
More complex science into the bonds in these chains then dictates whether they become omega 3, 6 or 9.
Why it’s important to know the difference between omega 3, 6 and 9
Omega 3 and 6 are ‘essential’ omega fatty acids. This means that our body cannot produce them itself, and it’s therefore essential that we include them in our diet. Oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are all rich sources of omega 3 whilst walnuts, almonds and sunflower oil are all good omega 6 sources.
Omega 9 is ‘non-essential’ because the body can make it and we don’t have to consume it. Omega 9 is present in oils and nuts such as olive oil and macadamia nuts. Since it isn’t essential that we eat omega 9, we don’t need to concern ourselves with getting enough of it.
Too much omega 6 has detrimental effects
Even though omega 6 is essential, we should still be wary of how much we’re eating. Consuming too much omega 6 can cause inflammation within the body.
Inflammation is normally a good thing, it keeps our immunity and defenses strong, but too much and it becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is responsible for health concerns such as heart disease, dementia, obesity, diabetes and some cancers.
We have to consume omega 6 to keep our brain, skin, hair and bones healthy and for normal metabolism. But many of us in the Western world are eating too much omega 6. It’s found in sunflower oil and corn oil, that are regularly used to cook with both in homes and in restaurants and cafes. The simplest way to avoid eating too much omega 6 is to ditch these kinds of oils and use coconut or olive oil instead.
Why omega 3 is so essential
Our body needs omega 3 for many different functions. Its starring role is keeping the heart healthy. The body also needs omega 3 fatty acids to synthesise the hormones responsible for blood clotting, reproduction and immunity, and as an essential part of our cell membranes.
All that we can do to help increase our omega 3 fatty acid intake, the better, especially if we don’t eat fish. That’s why it’s so often recommended that vegans take an omega 3 supplement.
The omega fatty acid take home message? In a (wal)nut shell, it’s to eat more nuts, seeds and oily fish and to ditch the sunflower and corn oils (and foods cooked in them) in favour of olive and coconut oils. And if you’re concerned, take an omega 3 supplement, that doesn’t contain omega 6 or 9.
Written by Bev Walton
Food Writer and Nutritionist, dietician
A chef of over 35 years with experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for both magazines, websites and ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I have a degree in nutrition and dietetics and work with restaurants and organisations within the healthcare profession. I am also able to take high quality photographs of recipes created. No writing task is too great, and whilst I specialise in the above, I am able to write about any topic you throw at me. Member of the Guild of food writers.