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Deficiency of Omega-3 in diets

Findings in France show a need for a more balanced intake of Omega-3 and 6.

BY: Eleanor Yap

Sardines are a good source of Omega-3.

Recent reports from France have shown that essential fatty acids such as Omega-3 are beneficial in one’s diet. However, in most developed countries, including Singapore, there remains a deficiency in Omega-3 due to imbalanced diets in many urbanites. This can only be corrected by having a balanced diet as the human body cannot synthesise Omega-3 and it has to be obtained by consuming Omega-3 food sources such as sardines, tuna and salmon.

Nutritional biochemist Professor Philippe Legrand, who is chairman of the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Human Nutrition in the Agronomic University of Rennes and chairman of the French Guidelines Committee for fatty acid dietary recommendations in the French Food Safety Agency, was in Singapore recently to share his research findings that were done last year. He found that while it is recommended that people need at least 2.7g of Omega-3 in a daily diet, which the average population in developed countries are not getting as they are taking less than 10 percent of their needs.

Results from the Health Promotion Board’s National Nutrition Survey 2010 showed that an average Singaporean’s diet ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acid (which includes Omega-3): monounsaturated fatty acid: saturated fatty acid is currently at 0.5: 1: 1. This shows that Singaporeans are consuming more saturated and monounsaturated fats.

Prof Legrand also noted that most people are consuming more Omega-6 fatty acids, instead of Omega-3. He said: “Excess in Omega-6 intake can act as competitors to Omega-3 fatty acids. A diet that is high in Omega-6 but low in Omega-3 increases inflammation, while a diet that includes balanced amounts of each reduces inflammation. When an Omega-6 – Omega-3 ratio is too high, it can contribute to excess inflammation in the body – potentially raising the risk of all sorts of diseases.”

In his findings, he also recommended “to consume more olive oil to reduce Omega-6 in our food intake, and limit the amount of intake on sunflower, maize or soy oils as they are rich in Omega-6. Also, choose products from grass-fed animals, linseed or other Omega-3-rich sources. EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid)/DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) will be provided from fatty fish and seafood like sardines, mackerel, tuna, herring and salmon [when eaten] at least twice a week.”

Ageless Online finds out more about Omega-3 and 6 from Mah Wai Yee, head dietician from MyKenzen Nutrition Services:

 

What is Omega-3 and what is the difference between Omega-3 and 6? How do both benefit us?

Omega-3 fatty acids (also known as n-3 fatty acids) are essential fatty acids since our bodies cannot make Omega-3 fats and must be consumed from foods.

There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids – ALA (alpha linoleic acid), DHA and EPA. We need Omega-3 fatty acids for numerous normal body functions, such as controlling blood clotting, building cell membranes in the brain and for the brain normal growth and development.

Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with many other health benefits, including protection against heart disease and possibly stroke, cancer, arthritis, age-related macular degeneration, and mood and neurological disorders.

Omega-6 fatty acids are also healthy unsaturated fats. Just like Omega-3, we need to get Omega-6 fatty acids from food in our diet. There are four types of Omega-6 fatty acids – LA (linoleic acid), ARA (arachidonic Acid), GLA (gamma linoleic) and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).

Omega-6 fats play an important role in regulating our genes and promoting immune health and blood clotting. These fats can also help with the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and dermatitis. However, more research is still needed to support these health benefits. The difference between Omega-3 and 6 is in their chemical structure and their roles.

 

Where can you find Omega-3 in foods besides the usual suspects like tuna and salmon? What about Omega-6 in foods?

Omega-3 are found in fatty fish like sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, anchovies and trout; eggs (including Omega-3 enriched); flaxseeds and flaxseed oil; walnuts and pecans; soybeans; tofu; canola oil; and fortified foods like some margarines and milk.

Omega-6 fats are found in soybeans; corn; safflower and sunflower oils; nuts and seeds; and meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

 

I understand that in developed countries like Singapore, there is a deficiency of Omega-3. Why is that so? Are we taking more Omega-6?

We are deficient in Omega-3 simply because we are not consuming adequate Omega-3. Also, the issue is not only in the deficiency of Omega-3 but also in the balance of Omega-6: Omega-3. The recommendation Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio is 2-4: 1.

Omega-6 is more easily obtainable in our diet (from meat, poultry and cooking oils) and therefore most individuals do not have any problems consuming adequate Omega-6.

 

What advice then would you give in dealing with this deficiency?

In order to increase our intake of Omega-3, follow these tips:

  • Add more fish to your diet – It is recommended that we should try to include at least two fatty fish (sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, etc) in our diet.
  • Include flaxseeds/flaxseed oils in your diet – Try to add flaxseeds in salads, muffins and smoothies to have more Omega-3 intake. You can also try to add flaxseed oil to salad dressings or dips.
  • Choose Omega-3 rich foods and include them as part of your diet – These foods include eggs, milk and margarine. However, do remember to keep to the recommendation of about four eggs a week to keep your cholesterol levels in check.
  • Change the cooking oil – Try to use canola oil for cooking as it is a rich source of Omega-3.
  • Have more tofu and soybeans – Have a vegetarian meal once a week to have more Omega-3 in our diet.

 

Besides eating more natural sources of Omega-3, should we also consider Omega-3 supplements?

Supplements are usually recommended as a last resort to increase Omega-3 intake. If an individual is not consuming enough Omega-3, dietary changes should be the first solution. Supplements, however, can be used in the circumstances a person might have allergy issues or food intolerance to Omega-3 rich foods.

 

So how much should one intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids?

Linoleic acid (Omega-6): 9g
ALA: 2.2g
DHA: Minimum 250mg
EPA: Minimum 250mg

 

What about vegetarians and vegans? Would their EPA and DHA levels be low too? How can they obtain a balanced Omega-3 and 6?

For vegetarians, obtaining Omega-6 is easier as they can get it from cooking oils such as sunflower and olive oil. However, to obtain adequate Omega-3 will be quite tricky as there are three types of Omega-3, which I noted above. ALA can be obtained from soybean, tofu, flaxseeds and canola oil. But on the other hand, DHA and EPA is mainly found in seafood and especially oily fish and therefore a little challenging. There are however, some vegetarian sources of DHA and EPA and that is seaweed and algae.

 


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