11/08/2014 12:48 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 06:59 BST

Omega 3 - The Missing Component for Health and Weight-Loss?


We are often told that we should cut right down on fats. But there are two types of fats that are absolutely essential for our diets - both rather unimaginatively called Essential Fatty Acids or EFAs. They are critical in normal function and brain development. When you know that your brain is 60% fat and that these EFAs are responsible for ensuring that the connections between our brain cells work efficiently (amongst other roles), it becomes blindingly obvious that if we don't have the right levels of them, our brains won't function as well. Experts such as Dr Richardson are highlighting the huge increase in mental health issues such as depression, Alzheimer's, ADHD and addiction - believing our poor nutrition is largely to blame.

Omega 3 is one of these EFA. It is found mainly in oily fish. Omega 6 is another type of EFA - found in vegetable oils, grains, seeds and nuts. They come in two forms - the long-chain types that are needed for healthy function and the short-chain types which can be joined together to form the healthy long chain versions - but not very efficiently. So ideally, we want to be eating the long-chain type of EFAs.

Both omegas 3 and 6 are essential to our diet, however we are eating them in a completely different balance to our cave-dwelling ancestors, with much more omega 6 being consumed than omega 3 in a modern diet. This is because we are eating the short-chain form of omega 6 in margarines (and other non-dairy processed substitutes), biscuits, cakes, crisps, fried foods, takeaways and ready meals. The healthier long-chain omega 6 is found in meat, eggs and dairy products. All of these sources of omega 6 are overly abundant in most of our diets. Whereas the best type of omega 3, found in oily fish and seafood, are not. We can make this long-chain omega 3 from shortened forms found in flax (linseed oil), walnuts etc but very little and so vegetarians, or any of us who don't eat much fish or seafood, are at risk of deficiency.

So what does this actually mean for our health?

Well, evidence suggests that this imbalance between omega 6 and omega 3 could be contributing to the increase in the brain disorders I mentioned at the start.

Studies have shown, for instance, that omega-3 deficiency in pregnancy leads to behavioural issues in offspring, consistent with anxiety and depression and may also increase addictive disorders later in life.

What's more, the combination of omega-3 deficiency and high-sugar intake seems to be a potent one; as addiction, over-eating and obesity may be increased as a direct result of the brain effects that a omega-3 deficiency may cause.

Omega-3 deficiency has been linked to depression, too - and we all know how even 'feeling a bit low' can have us reaching for the biscuit tin!

What about Alzheimer's? A recent study from Rhode Island researchers found that MRI brain scan studies of older people showed less brain shrinkage and less decrease in mental test scores in those taking fish oil supplements, adding to the growing evidence associating fish oils with protection against brain decline.

With at least one person per minute being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease - this is something worth trying!

So how much omega 3 should we be eating? At least 500mg of EPA and DHA (the two main types of long-chain omega 3) are recommended to keep your heart healthy. Studies have shown that adding 1000mg to a standard diet may help in depression and other psychiatric disorders. You can get this from eating lightly cooked or raw (sushi, smoked salmon etc) fish or seafood a few times a week. However, it is also the balance of omega 3 and omega 6 that is important too - as too much omega 6 will compete with omega 3, reducing its effects. So, cut down on the heavily processed food that contains high levels of these short-chain omega 6.

Also, reduce your use of vegetable oils and spreads such as corn, sunflower and safflower and instead use olive or flax oil for dressings.

For cooking (which can damage many oils) consider saturated fats such as butter or coconut oil (or even lard or goose fat!), which seem to be fine in moderation, despite being demonised for many years.

Omega 3 supplements can be considered, too. Although getting your nutrients from food, as nature intended, is always best (and tastiest!), good quality supplements can be useful for those who need a boost, or who just don't like the taste of fish!