What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) derived from linolenic, linoleic and oleic acids. They are called essential as EFAs are necessary for many functions in the body and are required for maintenance of optimal health. As they cannot be synthesized in the body, they must be obtained through diet or supplementation. The other essential fatty acids are omega-6 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) remain in a liquid form even in cold weather, unlike saturated oils which solidify. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, are liquid at room temperature, but harden when refrigerated.

Deficiency of EFAs and imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is associated with serious health conditions, such as heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, cancer, asthma, schizophrenia, depression, stroke, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, among several others.

Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids that are important to human nutrition and are utilized by the body to perform different functions.

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The rich dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): oily cold-water fish (mackerel, sardine, tuna, anchovy and salmon, etc.)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): vegetable oils like flaxseed or linseed oil, rapeseed or canola oil, peanut oil, olive oil, soya oil, walnut oil, green leafy vegetables, fenugreek seeds, kidney beans, dry fruit seeds and oils.

Metabolism of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Enzymes in the human body change the parent omega-3 fatty acid, ALA to form EPA and DHA. But this conversion is slow and inefficient as only a small portion of ingested ALA is converted into active EPA or DHA. During early life, the body has limited capacity to convert ALA to DHA. Therefore, during fetal life, infancy and early childhood, DHA should be taken from very early age.

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