September 1, 2010

The skinny on fats: omega 3

If I was more artistically talented my little picture would have the omega 3 in a superhero costume – undies on the outside. Omega 3s seem to be in the news a lot lately as one of the ‘wonder nutrients’ of the moment. So what are they exactly and what’s so great about them?

What are omega 3s?

Omega 3s are ‘essential’ fats which mean that you need to eat them because your body doesn’t make them (yes, that’s right, I’m telling you to eat some fat). They are an important part of every cell of your body, especially important in your brain, eyes and nerves.

There are different types of omega-3 fats: some are found in plant foods like walnuts, canola oil and flaxseeds; and others in animal foods like lean red meat. The most potent of the omega 3 fats are those found in fish and seafood, and are marked on food labels as DHA and EPA.

Why should I eat them?
Omega 3 fats are part of the group of polyunsaturated fats which are ‘heart healthy’ fats. They’re important for the growth of a baby’s brain both before and after birth, so have been added to some infant formulas for many years. More recently omega 3 fats have been linked to a whole host of health benefits, including maintaining both eye and heart health, reducing the pain from rheumatoid arthritis and retaining memory. Some research has suggested omega 3 fats may help reduce depression. Is there anything this stuff can’t do?

How much do I need?

You only need a very small amount of omega 3 each day. To help prevent heart disease, Australian guidelines suggest 430mg per day for women and 610mg per day for men.

The best source of omega 3 is oily fish. You can easily get enough omega 3 by eating two to three serves of oily fish each week (150g per serve). Oily fish include salmon, canned sardines, and blue-eyed trevalla. Deep fried fish has very little omega 3 so try to grill, steam or fry your fish.

Fish and seafood are the best source of omega-3, but if you don’t eat fish there are other ways to get the omega 3 you need. These days many foods have omega 3 added: look out for eggs, bread and milk enriched with DHA/EPA. Lean red meat also has small amounts. Another easy way to add more omega 3s to your diet is to use canola oil in cooking, choose soy and linseed (flaxseed) bread or sprinkle walnuts in a salad.

If you are pregnant or have heart disease your dietitian may recommend different levels of omega 3 or alternative sources. Please talk to your dietitian for individual advice.

Does fish contain mercury?

The oily fish that are rich in omega 3s like salmon are usually large fish that are near the top of the food chain. These larger fish do have some mercury stored in them, though the levels in Australian fish are very low. Research has shown that you can safely eat oily fish two times a week to get all the health benefits without causing you to eat harmful amounts of mercury.

I love salmon, cherry tomato and baby spinach tossed through fresh fettuccini, what’s your favourite omega 3 recipe? Leave a message below to share it with my other readers.


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Can you tell me if the canning process affects the omega 3 content of salmon and tuna?
    Also, you don't mention tuna in your blog; is tuna a good source of omega 3 (as we are told on the tv) or not?

    BTW - love the blog

  2. Thanks for the great questions!

    The canning process does not affect the omega 3 content. Canned red salmon has very similar amounts of omega 3 as fresh, grilled salmon (1200mg). The more common canned pink salmon has sligthly less (900mg). This is enough for the company to label it as a 'very high source'.

    The meaty part of tuna has lower levels of omega 3, with canned tuna containing 551g in 100g. That is enough for the company to say it is a 'good source of omega 3'. Toro is the fatty part of the tuna available at some sushi bars and has very high levels of omega 3 (4000mg!).

    On the plus side, because the tuna used in canning is young and small Food Standards Australia states that the mercury levels are low enough to safely eat a small can each day (though remember that variety is the key to a balanced diet!).

  3. I forgot to mention that all the amounts of omega 3 mentioned above are from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) database.