You’ve probably heard of omegas in the context of fish consumption or nutritional supplements but what exactly are omegas and why are they good for us?

In this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we look at the dietary fatty acids omega-3, 6 and 9 and see why we need a good balance of all three for a healthy diet.

Omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated, which means they have many (poly) double bonds (unsaturated). They are essential acids as the body cannot make them on its own. There are many health benefits associated with the consumption of omega-3, including increasing the good cholesterol “HDL”, along with reducing blood pressure and plaque formation in the arterial walls. Omega-3 fatty acids can also play a role in weight management. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, which help prevent many chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are oily fishes such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies. According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, a sufficient intake of omega-3 per day is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women ages 19 and older.

Omega-6

Omega-6 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated and essential so you do need to get them from your diet. These fats are used primarily for energy purposes. The most common form of this fatty acid is linoleic acid. This can then be converted into a longer form called arachidonic acid. The downfall of arachidonic acid is that it can actually cause inflammation to occur.

Consumption of omega-3 can help combat this problem as it helps inhibit this process due to its anti-inflammatory properties. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is recommended at 4:1 but most of the western diet consists of much higher ratios such as 10:1. Omega-6 fatty acids are beneficial but only in the right quantities.

The best sources of omega-6 fatty acids are found in refined vegetable oils and foods cooked in vegetable oils as well as nuts and seeds. Corn and soybean oils along with sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, and cashews are all abundant in omega-6. The sufficient intake per day is 17 grams for men and 12 grams for women ages 19-50.

Omega-9

Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated, which means they have only one (mono) double bond (unsaturated). Omega-9 fatty acids are not essential as the body can produce them. Having foods rich in monounsaturated fat have been shown to reduce the very bad cholesterol (VLDL) in people with diabetes.

The best sources of omega-9 fatty acids are found in vegetable and seed oils as well as nuts and seeds. There are no sufficient intake recommendations since they are non-essential. Oils such as olive, cashew, almond, avocado, and peanut are all high in omega-9 fatty acids, as are almonds, cashews and walnuts.