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Omega-3 fatty acids: Are health benefits overrated?

BY: Mavis Dery & Frank Ekow Atta Hayford
File photo
File photo

OMEGA-3 fatty acids (Omega-3s) are essential nutrients found in foods that have been associated with various diseases. However, what is the evidence really saying about the health benefits of omega-3s? Are the health benefits overrated?

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential nutrients found in food. They are essential because the body cannot produce them and so must be obtained from the foods we eat. Omega-3 come in three main forms: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The biologically active forms of Omega-3s are the EPA and DHA.

Omega-3s boost the immune system to fight infections, provide energy for body tissues, prevent inflammations and help develop body cells such as the brain, eye and sperm.

Sources

The ALA is found in plant foods such as flaxseed, soybean, whole wheat, leafy vegetables and the fat of animals that eat grass.

The EPA and DHA forms are mainly found in seafood such as salmon, cod liver oil, herring, sardines, tuna, mackerel and algae.

Fish oil supplements are also available for some group of individuals. However, it is better to take food sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Research, COVID-19

Researchers are of the view that Omega-3 fatty acid in human cells can reduce the risk of entry of the coronavirus into the body cells, reduce the rate at which the coronavirus multiply even after getting into the body and reduce the severity of the Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome accompanied by the coronavirus disease.

Research has proven that an adequate amount of Omega-3 in the body cell can change the composition of the cell membrane as well as regulate some signals in the body to reduce the affinity of body cells for coronavirus.

Pregnancy

Research reveals a positive benefit in the early initiation of Omega-3 fatty acid during pregnancy. Some benefits observed among pregnant women who started Omega-3 supplementation in the first trimester of their pregnancy include a reduction in the risk of having a pre-term delivery, a reduction in the risk of developing pregnancy-induced hypertension (pre-eclampsia) as well as a decrease in the production of stress hormones such as cytokines.

However, research has shown no benefit when Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation begins in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Research has also shown an increased risk of pre-term birth with Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation among pregnant women who had enough Omega-3 fatty acid in their body.

Cardiovascular diseases

Omega-fatty acid supplementation among people with cardiovascular diseases by numerous research showed benefits such as reduced chances of having abnormal heart rhythm, lowered blood pressure, reduced triglyceride levels, slow down the accumulation of fat (plague formation) in the blood vessels, reduced the likelihood of having a heart attack and stroke and a reduced chance of dying from sudden cardiac death with Omega-3 supplementation above two grammes per day.

However, similar studies showed no reduction in the chances of developing moyacardiac infarction with Omega-3 supplementation.

How much to eat

The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of oily fish per week, where one serving of fish is about the size of a woman’s palm.

This is equivalent to three ounces (100 grammes). At least a total intake of about six to eight ounces per week is recommended.

Exposure to high heat, frying and canning can facilitate the destruction or loss of Omega-3. Boiling and baking can better preserve Omega-3 fatty acids in food.

Too much or less?

Excessive intake beyond prescribed doses of Omega-3 can cause haemophilia, nausea and stomach upset such as bloating or loose stools.

On the other hand, severe deficiencies can lead to growth retardation, a reduction in concentration, fatigue, trouble sleeping, impaired brain development, joint pain, leg cramps, scaly skin, brittle hair and thin nails.

Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to health generally.

Omega-3 fatty acids rich food sources should always be consumed as part of our meal plans.

Omega-3 fatty acids supplements should not be taken without the advice of a physician or a dietitian to avoid excessive intakes.

It is our view, base on evidence from research, that the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are not overrated and so eat at least two serving of oily fish per week.

The writers are students of the Department of Dietetics, School of Allied Health Sciences, College of Health Sciences, University of Ghana.
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