The lowdown on fatty acids
New Zealand’s favourite wellbeing expert, Dr Libby, answers readers’ questions about their health. I try to eat awell-balanced whole food diet. However there is a lot of information about omega 3 and omega 6s. Could you please simplify the information around the types of food these are in and especially what we should be eating. Thanks, Johanna.
Hi Johanna. Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential for human health. They are important components of cell membranes and are precursors to many other substances in the body, such as those involved with regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses.
Fatty acids have big, long names so please don’t get caught up in them. It is easier to identify with their abbreviated names.
The human body is capable of producing most of the fatty acids it needs, except for linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega 3 fatty acid.
These therefore have to be obtained from the diet and are considered ‘‘essential fatty acids’’ (EFAs). Both of these fatty acids are needed for growth and repair, but are also used to make other fatty acids.
However, as conversion to the omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is limited, it is recommended that sources of these specific fats are also included in the diet. Foods and oils containing EFAs include oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, evening primrose oil, blackcurrant seed oil and borage oil.
A balanced diet needs to contain both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, whereas omega 6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation.
Research suggests the ‘‘typical’’ Western diet currently contains 14 to 25 times more omega 6 fatty acids than omega 3 fatty acids and this is a problem. Decrease or omit processed foods and increase the foods containing EFAs for a better balance. My mother always used to say ‘‘you are what you eat’’ but I have problems with my digestion all the time and it doesn’t seem to matter what I eat, I either feel sick or tired or both. Please help. Thanks, Eunice.
Hi Eunice. Firstly, it is important that you have your digestive system symptoms investigated by a medical doctor.
From a dietary perspective, you may be eating a food that you do not digest efficiently, you may have poor stomach acid or bile production, or you may have some less than desirable bacteria inhabiting your gut. Again, this needs to be investigated by an experienced health professional.
Furthermore, the old adage you are what you eat isn’t quite correct; you are what you eat, absorb and assimilate.
A number of factors can affect the ability to digest and absorb the nutrients from food including stress, caffeine and medications such as antibiotics. What and how you eat are also critical to your ability to absorb nutrients and obtain energy from food.
The key to sustained energy from food is in the energy release. When you eat foods that contain fibre such as fresh vegetables and lentils you help to slow the release of glucose into the blood – the result being your energy release is sustained.
Real foods naturally contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals and thus provide better digestive system health as well as a slower release of energy.
You want slow burning fuel for sustained energy – kumara can be a good choice – and fats from whole foods also help sustained energy release.
Good fat sources include avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut, organic butter, oily fish, pasturefed meat.