Omegas – our ‘heart family’

Omegas – our ‘heart family’

Author -  Kate Morland, Nutritionist

Omega fatty acids have been linked with lowering cholesterol and reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. Linseed, or flaxseed, is an excellent plant source of omega fatty acids.

What’s the fuss all about with Omegas?

We’ve all heard the message that we should eat more omegas. But do you know why? Well a group of researchers once questioned why the Inuit’s (also known as Eskimo people) had lower rates of heart disease compared to the western world. When they discovered their diets consisted mainly of fish, they went on to find a link between omega 3 rich foods and heart health. But to complicate things, there is also a link with omega 6. We take a closer look.

Omegas; Heart Healthy Fats

Omega fatty acids belong to one large family which I will refer to as the ‘Heart Family’. Members of this family include omega 3’s and omega 6’s which are poly-unsaturated fatty acids. These fats are essential for the body and must be provided through the diet. They play an essential role in the structure and function of all cell membranes in our bodies.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

The spotlight has been on omega 3’s for quite some time particularly in relation to reducing cardiovascular disease risk. The ‘parent’ omega 3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) by the body. Large clinical trials have shown diets rich in omega 3’s play a role in reducing inflammation and risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality after a heart attack (1-3). There is also growing evidence to suggest omega 3’s play a role in inflammatory diseases like arthritis and bowel disease (4).

Dietary sources rich in omega 3’s are limited and include oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, herring, trout), flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements. Tinned tuna does not have very high levels of omega 3.

Omega 6 Fatty acids; Omega 3’s extended family

Omega 6 fatty acids are the cousin to omega 3. It is well established that omega 6’s (in particular linoleic acid) play a role in lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease (5).

Dietary sources rich in omega 6 are abundant and include: wholegrain breads & cereals, nuts, pumpkin seeds, avocado, eggs, poultry, and a wide range of oils (e.g. flaxseed/linseed, evening primrose oil, canola, soybean, sunflower, corn, safflower, cottonseed oils)

So how much of omegas should I be consuming?

Getting a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is important as they each contribute unique benefits. We consume in our general diets an abundance of omega 6 but we need to consciously consume more rich sources of omega 3 to gain maximal health benefits.

  • Aim for at least 2 serves of oily fish per week
  • Consider a fish oil supplement if you do not enjoy fish or unlikely to consume regular intake
  • Substitute butter for healthier omega 3 & 6 rich oils and spreads
  • Add pumpkin seeds and nuts to meals or snacks
  • Sprinkle ground linseed/flaxseed meal or oil onto your cereal or mix into yoghurt

  1. Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Lancet 354 (9177): 447–55. 1999
  2. M. Yokoyama, H. Origasa and M. Matsuzaki et al., Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis [published correction appears in Lancet 2007;370:220], Lancet 369 (2007), pp. 1090–1098.
  3. M.L. Burr, A.M. Fehily and J.F. Gilbert et al., Effects of changes in fat, fish, and fibre intakes on death and myocardial reinfarction: Diet And Reinfarction Trial (DART), Lancet 2 (1989), pp. 757–761.
  4. B M Yashodhara, S Umakanth, J M Pappachan, S K Bhat, R Kamath, B H Choo. Omega-3 fatty acids: a comprehensive review of their role in health and disease. Postgrad Med J 2009;85:84-90.
  5. William S. Harris, Dariush Mozaffarian,; Eric Rimm, Penny Kris-Etherton, Lawrence L. Rudel, Lawrence J. Appel, Marguerite M. Engler, Mary B. Engler, Frank Sacks. Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2009;119:902-907