Well known, but well understood? Let’s take a look at Omega fatty acids…
Fat – the big bad of the health conscious. But in truth, we all need a small amount of fat in our diets to provide essential fatty acids which the body is unable to make itself. There are two types that are important in particular which should feature in any balanced diet: Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Why do we need essential fatty acids?
Omega-3 and Omega-6 have a wide range of important functions within our bodies. They help to support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. One of their primary roles is the production of prostaglandins which regulate many body functions including heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, fertility, conception, immune system and inflammatory responses.
Essential fatty acids also generate and maintain the fatty membranes which coat every single one of the body’s cells. They support memory and brain function and actively maintain healthy hair, skin and nails, a healthy hormone balance and good eyesight. Omega-3 in particular is a powerful support for our cardiovascular health. Essential fatty acids also play an important role in helping us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K.
So all you need to do is make sure you have lots of both type in your diet, right?
Well, it’s not quite that simple.
First things first – what’s the difference between them?
These are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that can be found in many varieties of oily fish. Good sources include mackerel, salmon, pilchards, sardines, kippers, herring, trout, fresh crab, whitebait and swordfish. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in sunflower oil, linseed oil, walnuts, eggs, rapeseed and soya oils and spreads.
Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with good heart health as they can help to prevent blood clotting and regulate heart rhythm.  They are also important during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support child development.
Nutritional experts advise we should aim to eat at least one portion of oily fish per week. 
Within the Omega-3 family, there are three main types of essential fatty acid, which can be found in a number of dietary sources.
Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain plant-based essential fatty acid that is found in the richest quantities in seeds and seed oils, especially flaxseed oil. Other sources include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts and walnut oil.
To enable us to absorb Omega-3 from ALA, it needs to be converted to the long-chain essential fatty acid forms EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA can also be directly found in oily fish including salmon, herring, mackerel, trout and sardines. DHA is found in its greatest quantities in cold water fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna. DHA is instrumental in the development of the brain and vision.
Along with Omega-3 fatty acids, Omega-6 fatty acids play a role in brain function, normal growth and development.  They help to stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism and the reproductive system.
The Omega-6 family contains the essential fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA). Most Omega-6 dietary sources come from vegetable oils in the form of linoleic acid, such as sunflower, soya, safflower, sesame, pumpkin, flax and corn oils, plus spreads made from the oils. It can also be found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, nuts and grains.
Your body will convert LA to Omega-6 GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), and then it will be further broken down to Omega-6 AA (arachidonic acid). Omega-6 GLA can also be found in several plant-based oils such as borage oil, evening primrose oil, blackcurrant seed oil and hemp oil. Most of these oils also contain some linoleic acid. AA can also be found in dietary sources such as egg yolks, meats and dairy products.
Getting the balance right
So whilst both of these “Omegas” are beneficial in their own way, it’s important, like most things in a diet, to maintain a correct balance. Many people’s understanding of these essential fatty acids tends to lump them together, but in reality, the foods we eat do not contain an optimised balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 – and this is not ideal for health.
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids are necessary for our diet, however, for optimum health benefits, they need to be present in a ratio of 1:1 (omega-6: Omega-3). Across the western world, that ratio is considerably out, ranging from anywhere between 12:1 to 25:1!
It’s thought these imbalanced ratios are driven by convenience foods that are high in hydrogenated or refined vegetable and sunflower oils that push up the intake of Omega-6 when consumed excessively. For this reason, experts believe many of us may be deficient in Omega-3.
If you are currently not eating enough Omega-3 dietary sources, it’s possible to develop signs of deficiency like dry and itchy eyes, dry skin, eczema, pre-menstrual syndrome in women, poor memory, fatigue and weight problems.
This balance can be addressed by increasing your intake of oily fish to two times a week, or if you’re vegetarian, use flax oil in salad dressings, soups, stews, rice and jacket potatoes. It’s important to add oils to meals right at the last minute, however, as using them during cooking removes all the health benefits.
Why not try adding some healthy fats (in moderation!) to your diet today?