Flax and chia seeds are an awesome source of essential fatty acids, right?! Not so fast… below, contributor Stefani reveals the truth about omega fats (and where you should really be getting them from).
We often see the marketing all over the “health foods” in the grocery store; “made with chia,” “healthy dose of flax seeds,” and “a good source of essential fatty acids!” But what do these claims really mean?
It’s hard to see through the marketing gimmicks that advertisers put out there, and break down what really is good versus what just sounds good. When it comes to essential fatty acids, there is a lot of information out there to weed through.
We know that chia and flax seeds are indeed a plant-based source of omega fatty acids or essential fatty acids, but are they a good source?
A primer on omega fats: 3, 6, & 9
Essential fatty acids are fats that play important roles in the body. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids come from our food; we aren’t able to make them. Our body is able to make omega 9 fatty acids using the omega 3s and omega 6s that we’ve got stored. But if we are deficient in omega 3 and 6 because we aren’t eating enough of them, then our body can’t make enough omega 9.
Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely healthy for boosting brain development and lowering systemic inflammation levels throughout the body. They have even been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by minimizing the inflammatory cytokines on artery walls where plaque tends to form. (source) Without the additional inflammation in the arteries, chances of heart disease are much lower.
Omega 6 fats are best known for their contribution to inflammation in the body. They can create free radicals and are suspected to increase obesity. (source) Other studies show that eating omega 6 fatty acids can lead to liver damage. (source)
Omega 9 fatty acids are not “essential fatty acids” because our body makes them. They don’t have much research behind them yet, with the exception of oleic acid, most notably found in olive oil. It is suggested that a diet high in olive oil, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can assist in improving cardiovascular health. (source)
In general, we should be consuming omega 3 and omega 6 fats in a 1:1 ratio in order to minimize inflammation from the omega 6 EFAs. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet today is heavy with vegetable oils, fried and processed foods, and other unhealthy sources of omega 6s. Even healthy diets can contain too many nuts, which are also high in omega 6 fatty acids.
The result is an omega 3 to omega 6 ratio of closer to 1:20, which is entirely off balance. The epidemics of inflammation, obesity, and chronic illnesses that have been spreading through our nation are beginning to make sense.
Omega 3 essential fatty acid benefits
Several different omega 3s exist, but most research is on these three: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation, which helps to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and many other inflammation-based chronic diseases. They also play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development.
It’s been shown that infants who do not get enough omega 3 essential fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. (source) This is the reason that doctors recommend that expecting mothers take a prenatal vitamin with omega 3 for fetal brain development.
What are the signs & symptoms of an essential fatty acid deficiency?
It’s easy to consume an imbalance of these important nutrients if you don’t pay attention to your diet. How do you know if you’re getting enough?
Essential fatty acid deficiency can result in many symptoms, including:
- mood swings
- brain fog
- and heart disease. (source)
Additionally, you’re more at risk of being deficient in essential fatty acids if you’ve got inflammatory bowel disease, cystic fibrosis, pancreatic insufficiency, bariatric surgery, or have problems with fat malabsorption.
This deficiency can show up in several ways, including elevated liver function, hyperlipidemia, scaly rashes, hair loss, poor wound healing, slowed growth in children, and increased susceptibility to infection. (source)
What are the sources of essential fatty acids?
ALA is present in plant oils, such as flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, while DHA and EPA are present in fish, fish oils, and krill oils. (source) It’s possible for your body to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but it happens at a pretty low rate.
In order to reach adequate omega 3 levels, you’d need to eat much more ALA than you would EPA or DHA. (source) This tells us that we are better off getting our essential fatty acids from EPA/DHA sources such as extra virgin cod liver oil, green-lipped mussel, and ratfish oil instead of plant-based sources like seeds and nuts.
You can easily get enough healthy omega 3s from your diet, but if you feel the need to supplement, krill oil is shown to be a better choice than fish oil. (source)
Best essential fatty acid supplements
Because most of us don’t get enough useable fatty acids in our diet, supplementation is wise, but not all omega supplements are equal. The best ones to look for include:
Extra virgin cod liver oil- the only cod liver oil we recommend around here, extra virgin cod liver oil (EVCLO) is as pure as it gets. Minimally processed without heat or chemicals, filtered for contaminants, and bottled without any added vitamins, EVCLO is a superior supplement the whole family can take on a regular basis. Get it here.
Green-lipped mussel- this up-and-coming EFA supplement contains a rare combination of lipid (fat) groups, which include omega-3s and some eicosatetraenoic acids (ETAs- a lesser-known type of EFA), which been shown to be extremely powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that are particularly effective against arthritis and other chronic pain. Get it here.
Krill oil- an excellent source of phospholipid bound EPA/DHA with improved efficiency over fish oil at increasing red blood cell levels of omega-3s, krill oil is an excellent source of phospholipid bound EPA/DHA with improved efficiency over fish oil at increasing red blood cell levels of omega-3s. Get it here.
What foods are high in omega 3 fatty acids?
Fish contain some of the highest levels of omega 3 essential fatty acids due to their EPA/DHA content. Cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, tuna, and sardines, are much higher in omega 3 fatty acids than lower fat fish such as bass, tilapia, cod, and shellfish.
Foods that are lower in omega 3s would be those with concentrated ALA such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and vegetable oils.
Bottom line: should you eat flax seeds and chia seeds?
Absolutely. However, when choosing the best nutrient-dense foods for your diet, be sure to prioritize EPA and DHA omega 3 essential fatty acids over ALA. While foods like flaxseeds and chia seeds are healthy (and delicious) for you, they are not high enough in usable omega 3 to be considered a primary source.
A small amount of a wild, fatty fish will go much farther than a large number of seeds in helping you reach optimal omega 3 levels. Select a good quality fish to cook into a delicious recipe once or twice a week, and you’ll be well on your way to developing better habits and getting your omega 3 fatty acids!