In a world full of uncertainties and false claims, we thought it important to clear up any misunderstandings surrounding the important nutrients that are omega-3s. Debunk the myths and mystery circulating about these molecules. Because no one wants to be an April Fool when it comes to their wellbeing – and omega-3s are essential for it.
Myth #1: The Source of Omega-3s is Fish
One of the first trends in omega-3 consumption came from the ancient Roman’s obsession with a food called garum. As detailed in Paul Greenberg’s book The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet, this ancient fish sauce was made from the rotted guts of fish (no joke) and was used to relieve all kinds of ailments: soothing upset stomachs, easing digestive tract issues, mitigating tuberculosis, relieving migraines – the list goes on. A recent re-creation of the Roman’s methods for producing garum found the substance to be high in – you guessed it – omega-3s. Garum can be thought of as the very first omega-3 supplement.
What the Romans didn’t realize however, was that fish are not actually the originators of omega-3s. In fact, to this day, it is widely believed that these incredible molecules come from fish or seafood. An omega-3 myth gone viral. Fish oil supplements are all the rage. But they’re also destroying our oceans, and at the same time, exposing anyone who takes them to the environmental toxins and heavy metals often found in fish.
So, who is our omega-3 hero? It is in fact microalgae. These tiny organisms are nature’s original source of marine omega-3s. Fish get omega-3s from the microalgae (or other fish) they ingest. Food chain dynamics at their finest. The ancient Romans had no way of knowing this – but we do. There are no excuses for not acting accordingly.
Myth #2: All Omega-3 Fatty Acids Offer The Same Benefits
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – they roll off the tongue, right? These are the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re all essential for many of our bodies’ physiological functions. However, contrary to popular belief, ALA, EPA and DHA are not all made equal.
ALA is a short, precursor form of omega-3 that is found in land-based foods like walnuts, chia seeds and spinach. As any other fat, ALA is either stored or used as energy – but in order to offer all the other benefits of omega-3s, it needs to be converted into EPA and DHA.
EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are long-chain, marine-based omega-3s that support our bodies in a number of vital functions. Heart health, cognitive operation, blood pressure regulation and joint support are just a few of the areas that are supported by omega-3 intake. Our bodies are actually able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA; however, extensive research has shown that this process is limited, or “inefficient” to put it in scientific terms, which is why it is recommended to include sources of EPA and DHA directly in our diets. And the only plant-based marine source of EPA and DHA is... microalgae! (Noticing a theme here?)
Myth #3: Omega-3 Fatty Acids Will Make You Fat
For many people, the word ‘fat’ conjures an immediate negative reaction. And it’s no wonder – we’re inundated with messages of slim wellness and “Fat free” labels from early on. But despite this well-driven campaign of “health,” it is not actually fats that add those extra pounds around the waistline. No April Fool’s tricks here: gaining weight happens by consuming more calories than you burn, and not by eating fat.
In fact, your body actually needs fats to survive – and to thrive. Let us introduce you to a type of fat that fits into this category: PUFAs.
Unsaturated fats are a type of healthy fat that comes from predominantly plant-based sources and PUFAs – or polyunsaturated fatty acids – are one kind of unsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into this PUFA bucket. Our bodies can’t make PUFAs, so it’s important to incorporate them into our diets. And they won’t make you fat, pinky swear.
As with any category of nutrient, there are some types of fat that are unhealthy and can cause damage to your body. Saturated fats are a good(?) example, and can be found in abundance in “bad” foods like pizza, cheese, many meat products and fast food.
Trans fats are another type of fat that you probably want to avoid when possible, as they can contribute to the clogging of blood vessels and increase the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Replacing the trans fats and saturated fats in our diets with unsaturated fats will improve our bodies’ functioning and general health. Let PUFAs and their unsaturated friends help get the fats you need back on the menu.
Myth #4: Omega-3s Only help the Heart
While heart health is a major incentive to keeping up on your omega-3s, it’s far from the only one. Omega-3s offer a leg up in so many areas – as we like to think the ancient Romans would attest to – and we’re still exploring them today.
For one thing, the command center of the human body – our brains – are made up of 10 to 15 percent of omega-3 DHA. In this way, everything we think and do is linked to the power of omegas. These essential nutrients also improve our joints, vision, sleep quality and cell function. Aesthetically, stronger nails, shinier hair and more radiant skin can also all be thanks to omegas.
And let’s not forget our tiniest loves: fetuses and infants heavily rely on these molecules for vision and cognitive development, and potentially even for motor skills, hand-eye coordination and childhood learning.
As you can see, our hearts are only the beginning of what omega-3s can do for us – and they’re important for everyone, big and small.
Omega-3s aren’t just another health trend: for millennia, these nutrients have been appreciated – if not fully understood – and have proven their value over and over again. With such a long legacy, rumors and claims will undoubtedly continue to crop up about omega-3 fatty acid benefits, but we hope we’ve set the record straight on a few of them. Should you take omega-3 supplements? The answer is a strong yes. You can play the fool, but don’t be the fool about what’s going into your body, whether it’s the first of April or any other day of the year.