Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential group of polyunsaturated fats, comprised of three main types:
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)
As with all fatty acids, omega-3s are composed of chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. The difference in chemical structure, however, is what sets this group of polyunsaturated fats apart from other fats and makes them a crucial part of the human diet.
The term “polyunsaturated” can be broken up in two parts for better understanding: “Poly,” in terms of fatty acids, means that the omega-3 fatty acids have several double bonds between carbon atoms in the structure. “Unsaturated,” as a direct result of these multiple double bonds, means that these fatty acids are not saturated in hydrogen atoms. It’s because of this that omega-3s do not easily change into cholesterol and become a risk for heart disease like saturated fats, which only contain a single bond.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Composed of twenty carbons with five double bonds, EPA’s main function is to form signaling molecules. Eicosanoids, as these molecules are called, play a great number of physiological roles, such as ameliorating the effects of coronary heart disease by reducing the fats in the blood (high triglycerides), as well as causing a reduction in high blood pressure (hypertension). Most importantly, eicosanoids reduce inflammation throughout the body. Because most disease is driven by inflammation—an issue commonly seen coinciding with the ingestion of omega-6 fatty acids—the eicosanoids make omega-3s even more vital to a heart-healthy diet.
Sources: various types of edible seaweed (algae/algal oil), phytoplankton, perilla oil, purslane, and human breastmilk.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Composed of twenty-two carbons with six double bonds, DHA is an important structural component that has proven to have a positive effect on hypertension and heart disease. DHA initiates the breakup of lipid rafts—plasma membranes (within the cells) that contain high concentrations of cholesterol. This makes it more difficult for inflammation to arise.
Sources: same as EPA.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)
Composed of eighteen carbons with three double bonds, ALA—the most common omega-3 fatty acid in a plant-based diet—must be converted into EPA or DHA in order for the body to be able to harness all the benefits. Without this conversion, ALA is stored in a dormant state like any other fat.
While a diet rich in ALA has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as improve and lengthen life, there exists the dilemma of inefficiency within the conversion process. Only a small percentage of ALA converts to EPA (5%), and even less to DHA(<.5%).
Sources (highest ALA content per 200-calorie serving):
Fruits (raw)— raspberries 485mg, blueberries 439mg, blackberries 437mg, strawberries 406mg, guavas 329mg.
Nuts— dried butternuts 2850mg, walnuts 2776mg, dried beechnuts 590mg, dried hickory nuts 319mg, roasted pecans 288mg.
Seeds— flaxseed 8543mg, chia 7164mg, sprouted radish seeds 3358mg, sprouted alfalfa seeds 1522mg, mustard seed 1143mg.
Herbs— fresh basil 2747mg, dried oregano 2732mg, dried marjoram 2384mg, dried tarragon 2204mg.
Vegetables— grape leaves 2443mg, cooked broccoli 2346mg, cooked spinach 2183mg, cooked cauliflower 1452mg, raw arugula 1360mg.
Legumes (cooked)— pinto beans 1180mg, kidney beans 1176mg, navy beans 767mg, soybeans 775mg, mung beans 638mg.
EATING AS WORSHIP
EATING AS WORSHIP
The Conversion Process (ALA—EPA—DHA)
There are a number of factors that contribute to a consistent or delayed ALA conversion. First, adequate levels of nutrition must be met. Without sufficient quantities of iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B7, the conversion cannot occur. Unfortunately, it’s been reported that these are the more common deficiencies in an incomplete vegetarian diet. Second, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids compete for the very same enzymes. This is why a diet high in omega-6s will cause a significant reduction to the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, as well as have a direct negative effect on heart health.
Why Choose Plant-Based Omega-3 Over Fish?
“The disease and suffering that everywhere prevail are largely due to popular errors in regard to diet.” (Ministry of Healing, 295)
The oceans are contaminated with toxins and pollutants that accumulate in fatty fish. These toxins—polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and methyl mercury—cancel out any beneficial effects omega-3s would otherwise have on the human body.
The contamination has been so detrimental on fish life that several companies have recalled batches of fish oil supplements due to the high levels of pollutants. In 2006, Seven Seas Ltd. and Boots withdrew their products within just one month of each other.
Many claim farmed fish is the answer, but farmed fish contain significantly lower levels of omega-3s and, surprisingly, even more PCB toxins than wild fish, as was discovered in a comparison study of the two sources.
What’s more, the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded: “Men advised to eat oily fish, and particularly those supplied with fish oil capsules, had a higher risk of cardiac death.” A similar study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that fish oil supplements increase life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms in patients who have defibrillator implants. The American Heart Association says these studies can be explained by the “…adverse effects of methyl mercury, an environmental contaminant found in certain fish that may diminish the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.”
Repeatedly, study after study has concluded that fish-based supplementation is a hazard to heart health while plant-based supplementation has a positive and protective effect.
The human body does not produce omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats must be claimed and processed within the diet. ALA is abundant in high-fat plants foods; ALA must convert to EPA and DHA, but EPA and DHA are also directly available in marine plant foods. In many cases, a trusted supplement is necessary, but fish-based supplementation has a negative effect on the heart, as well as overall health. Without consistency in plant-based choices, Omega-3 deficiencies will arise, leading to high levels of cholesterol within the blood, high blood pressure, and eventual heart disease. This is precisely why Omega-3s have been coined the “essential fatty acids.”