How many people have an omega-3 shortage and what are the consequences?

Several small-scale studies have revealed that the majority of Western people have a shortage of omega-3 fatty acids – in particular men, the elderly, vegetarians, those with diabetes and people of Northern Europe. While this is caused by poor diet, genetics and evolution also play a big part. That is why it is important that especially vulnerable population groups consume the necessary amount of omega-3. At the Danone Institute Symposium 2005, Professor S. De Henauw from Ghent University revealed that in one study conducted among 600 women from the age of 18 to 39 years in the Ghent region, the majority of participants had insufficient omega-3 intake and also did not take the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also called essential fatty acids as they are not produced by the body and therefore must be obtained from diet. Foods of animal as well as plant origin contain omega-3 (for example fish oil, chia seeds, flaxseed and nuts), however, it must be noted that the omega-3 in plant-based foods is different to that found in animals.

The omega-3 fatty acid ALA or a-Linolenic acid (ALA) is found only in plant-based foods and is a source of energy for cells, and vital for forming chains of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA are found exclusively in animal foods and are important for cell wall growth as well as the brain and boosts the immune system and hormonal growth (o.a. Sinn et al., 2012 [1]; Yurko-Mauro, 2010 [2]).

The most important reason why many people have an omega-3 shortage and incorrect balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is due to a combination of consuming too many plant-based oils and eating too little fatty fish.

The main symptoms of a light to moderate omega-3 shortage include:

  • Fatigue
  • Memory problems
  • Poor immune system (often ill)
  • Dry skin, eczema
  • Hair loss
  • Heart complaints
  • Fertility issues
  • Mood swings

A chronic shortage of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to a number of illnesses and conditions including allergies, inflammation, cognitive problems, Alzheimer’s Disease, ADHD, depression, cancer and heart and vascular diseases (Horrobin, 1983 [3]).

Considering the serious consequences and illnesses that could result from an omega-3 shortage, it is therefore important to on a daily basis eat foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and to take in less omega-6 fatty acids. 
Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids are, for example, fatty fish and krill oil. Also, seeds and nuts are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds, for instance, contain 600% more omega-3 fatty acids than Atlantic salmon.
[1] Effects of n-3 fatty acids, EPA v. DHA, on depressive symptoms, quality of life, memory and executive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 2012 Jun;107(11):1682-93
[2] Cognitive and cardiovascular benefits of docosahexaenoic acid in aging and cognitive decline, Current Alzheimer Research. 2010 May;7(3):190-6
[3] Horrobin, DF. Reviews in Pure and Applied Pharmacological Sciences, vol 4, 1983, pp. 339-383

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