Overview and benefits of omega-3 fats
We’ve known for some time that omega-3 fats are good for our health, but they are one of the two fatty acids that we can’t make in our bodies, (the other being omega-6 fatty acid).
The health benefits of different oils
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Sources of omega-3 fats
We can obtain omega-3 fats from different sources.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is in vegetable oils, and rapeseed and flaxseed/linseed oils.
- Other sources include hazelnuts, walnuts and pecan nuts, and some leafy green vegetables.
- Oily fish
Unfortunately, we only produce small amounts of these vital fats ourselves, so need to find other sources to help us stay healthy. This is where fish come in. Oily fish are a particularly good source of omega-3 fats.
A guide to healthy fats
Ideally, we should eat five ounces, or 140g of cooked fish, and oily fish in particular, twice a week at least, suggest the British Dietetic Association. Salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines are especially good as they contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, that are important for your heart health.
‘There is quite a lot of evidence that having more omega-3 rich foods in your diet has benefits for your health,” explains Frankie Phillips, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
‘For instance, this can reduce your blood pressure and can also prevent your blood platelets from clumping together. It may reduce inflammation in your body. If left untreated, inflammation can have serious effects on the blood vessels that transport blood around your body, and could even result in stroke and heart problems,’ says Frankie Phillips.
‘It’s always better to have whole foods in an Omega-3 rich diet, with oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon,’ says Frankie Phillips.
10 healthy reasons to eat more fish
However, getting your omega-3 fatty acids directly from cooked fish doesn’t suit everyone. The taste of cooked fish, and the smell that can spread through your home after cooking it can put people off eating fish regularly at home. ‘Although tinned fish, such as sardines in tomato sauce, or tinned mackerel minced with lemon juice and soft cheese make a great pate or sandwich filling,’ says Frankie Philips.
Recipe: creamy sardines on toast
An alternative is to take your omega-3 in the form of capsules – you’ll find these at pharmacies and supermarkets (although you will have to check the amount of Omega-3 they contain).
Alternative sources of omega-3 for people who don't like salmon
How do omega-3 fish oil supplements work?
If you can’t eat, or don’t like, oily fish or other foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids, you can take them in capsule form. You do need to make sure that you are taking Omega-3 supplements, rather than cod liver oil, as this doesn’t have the high amounts of omega 3 fats, and they carry out different functions.
Omega-3 fatty acids come from the body of the fish, and help protect our health in a number of ways. According to Arthritis Research UK they are strongly anti-inflammatory, and can help to reduce inflammation in our white blood cells. They also play a part in combating inflammation in our joints.
Studies carried out on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have produced varying results. Some studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids may protect our health by reducing our blood pressure. They may also give us some protection from developing an abnormal heart rhythm, and reduce the chances of suffering from a heart attack or stroke.
(Cod, or fish liver oil, as its name suggests, comes from the fish’s liver, and contains vitamin A and vitamin D. It is not the same as omega-3 fatty acids).
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How much omega-3 fish oil is it safe to take?
Guidelines from the British Dietetic Association suggest that we should all try to eat two portions of fish a week, and one of these portions should be oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or trout. If you don’t like eating fish you can take omega-3 supplements. Follow the advice on the packaging to make sure you are taking a suitable amount each day.
If you aren’t sure which supplement to choose, read the labels on the packaging carefully before buying. If you aren’t sure, ask your pharmacist to explain the information for you. Make sure that you buy omega-3 supplements, which are high in EPA and DHA oils.
Are there side effects with omega-3 fish oil?
Omega-3 fish oil supplements can cause side effects in some people. These can include minor side effects, such as having rather fishy breath, and the supplements leaving you with a rather fishy-tasting after-effect in your mouth. While these aren’t very pleasant, they shouldn’t stop you getting on with your daily life – and perhaps using breath-fresheners to combat the effects.
However, you can also have more unpleasant side effects that have more impact on your life. These can include disruptions in your digestive system, such as an unsettled tummy, which may also lead to you having to stay near a toilet because your faeces are softer than usual, and may be unpredictable. However, this shouldn’t happen if you take the correct dose. If it does happen, talk to your pharmacist or GP
Taking a daily dose of more than three grams of fish oil may cause some bleeding. If you experience bleeding from your rectum, see your GP. And, if you already have a tendency to having an upset tummy and rather unpredictable stools, it may be a good idea to discuss this with your GP before you start taking fish oil supplements.
How to deal with bad breath
Can I get omega-3 fish oil on prescription?
Until recently we have been able to have omega-3 fish oils on prescription. However, this has now come to an end, along with prescriptions for other items, including gluten-free products, some travel vaccinations and multivitamin supplements, as these are among the products and services that are now no longer funded by the NHS.
If this is likely to affect you, talk to your pharmacist, to see if they can suggest suitable alternatives to your prescription omega-3 fish oil capsules.
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