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In our endless quest for thinness, we have twisted fat into a villain. And when we try to eat low-fat diets and avoid saturated fats and cholesterol, we usually make the mistake of avoiding all fats. But not all fats are bad and, in fact some fats can be good, even essential. We definitely require certain fats for health - lipids, sterols, and essential fatty acids. Of the many "good" fats that play vital roles in the body, two families of polyunsaturated fatty acids; the omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, have received much notice in the scientific community in the last three decades for their beneficial health effects, particularly in relation to cardiovascular disease. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA) are considered as the parent omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in each series, respectively.
Although the importance of omega-3 fatty acids has been known since 1930's, the awareness of their health benefits has noticeably increased in the past few years . Omega -3 fatty acids (also known as n-3 fatty acids) are polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and are often categorized as "essential fatty acids," meaning that the human body is unable to produce them and they can only be obtained by the diet. In addition, these fats are essential for normal growth and cell function and nutritionally significant omega-3 fatty acids include Î±-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This essay will focus on the basic structure and metabolism of the omega-3 fatty acids, and the role that these fats play in normal human physiology.
The Chemical Structure of Fatty Acids
Basic structure of different fatty acids
About 90% of our dietary fats come in the form of triglycerides, which are made up of fatty acids and glycerol. Fatty acids are the building blocks from which fats (lipids) are produced. Fats stored in the body are primarily present in the form of triacylglycerols (TAGs). Triacylglycerol (Fig.1) is a polymer which contains a glycerol molecule and 3 fatty acid molecules. The fatty acid molecules can be found at one of three positions on the glycerol molecule (termed sn -1; sn -2 and sn -3) and the characteristics (i.e. melting point and digestibility) of the TAGs will also influenced by the presence of different fatty acids at different positions on the glycerol molecule.
Fatty acids are made up of a backbone of carbon atoms, with a carboxyl group (COOH) at one end [the delta (Î”) end] and a methyl group (CH 3) [the omega (Ï‰) or n -end] at the other end. Hydrogen atoms are attached to the string of carbon atoms, forming a hydrocarbon chain.
Figure 1: The structure of triacylglycerol. The fatty acids in the sn -1, sn -2 and sn -3 positions (F 1, F 2 and F 3).
Fatty acids vary in length from 2 to 80 carbons and the carbon chain length affects the characteristics of a fatty acid, as does the presence or absence of double bonds between carbon atoms. The fatty acid is said to be saturated if all of the carbons in the fatty acid chain are connected by single bonds and the fatty acid is said to be unsaturated if one or more double bonds are present in the fatty acid chain. A fatty acid is a monounsaturated (MUFA) if there is only one double bond present in its chain, and if there is more than one double bond present the fatty acid is said to be polyunsaturated (PUFA). Based on the position of the first double bond in the fatty acid chain PUFAs can be further classified as either n -3 (omega- 3) or n -6 (omega- 6) PUFAs (Fig.2). All members of the n-3 family of fatty acids have their first double bond between the third and fourth carbon atoms while all members of the n-6 family of fatty acids contain their first double bond between the sixth and seventh carbon atoms from the terminal methyl group.
Figure 2. n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. PUFA, Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Cis and trans fatty acids
In unsaturated fatty acids, double bonds can be arranged in one of two configurations, Cis or Trans form (Fig.3). Double bonds found in foods are mainly in the Cis form, where both hydrogen atoms are located on the same side of the fatty acid. It is the presence of the Cis bond that lowers the melting point of the fatty acid, making it more likely to be liquid at room temperature. Trans -fatty acids, where the hydrogen atoms are located on opposite sides of the fatty acid, are less common in nature and are normally found in the fat of ruminant meats in small amounts and in milk being formed in the rumen during digestion and later absorbed as an energy source for the animal.
Cis fatty acid Trans fatty acid
Figure 3. Cis- and Trans-configurations.
The Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
The omega-3 family of fatty acids is derived from the parent fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Starting with ALA and ending at docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) there are a total of eight omega-3 fatty acids in the omega-3 family. Some play significant individual roles while others take part in supporting function and all are part of the body's usual fatty acid biochemistry. The 8 members of this fatty acid family include;
1. ALA - alpha-linolenic acid
2. SDA - stearadonic acid
3. ETrA - eicosatrienoic acid
4. ETA - eicosatetraenoic acid
5. EPA - eicosapentaenoic acid
6. HPA - heneicosapentaenoic acid
7. DPA - docosapentaenoic acid
8. DHA - docosahexaenoic acid
Among these polyunsaturated fatty acids ALA is considered essential as the human body cannot produce this fatty acid, and it must be derived from the diet. All other omega-3 fatty acids are described as being "conditionally essential" because although the body can synthesise these by metabolising ALA, the body cannot produce them fast enough to keep up with demand. Humans are poor at converting dietary ALA to the long chain omega-3 PUFAs eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and for that reason, it is suggested that good sources of these fatty acids are also included in the diet.
Synthesis of Long Chain Omega- 3 Fatty Acids from ALA
Digestion and absorption
The most important biological function of ALA is as a precursor for the synthesis of longer-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA). It is the efficiency of dietary fat absorption across the gastrointestinal tract, uptake and partitioning towards beta-oxidation and incorporation into structural and storage pools, which determine the bioavailability of dietary ALA for conversion to longer-chain PUFA. In order to be properly digested and absorbed, dietary fats have to first be emulsified by bile secreted into the small intestine from the gallbladder. The fat droplets form small micelles which are dispersible in water can be acted on by pancreatic lipases cleaving the fatty acids at the sn-1 and sn-3 positions of the TAGs. The end-products from the digestion of fat (free fatty acids, a 2-monoacylglycerol, and very limited amounts of glycerol) are absorbed by diffusion across the gut wall into the cells of the intestine. The mode of transport away from the gut is dependent on chain length; the short to medium chain fatty acids (2-12 carbon atoms) are transported bound to the carrier protein albumin via the hepatic portal vein to the liver. However, dietary fat mostly consists of the longer chain fatty acids (>12 carbon atoms), which are reassembled into triacylglycerols in the intestinal cell. Triacylglycerols are then packaged into chylomicrons, which are the lipoprotein particles, and are transported via the lymph system into the peripheral circulation. The rate of lipolysis (breakdown of fat), absorption of fatty acids and transport is also influenced by the degree of unsaturation of the fatty acids . Once in the bloodstream chylomicrons acquire apolipoprotein C (apoC) from high density lipoproteins (HDL). At the target cell (e.g. muscle), the apoC subunit activates the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which is found within the endothelial cell membrane. This results in cleavage of the fatty acids, which are then transported into tissues for storage or metabolism .
Fatty acids destined for metabolism are transported into the mitochondria of the target cells. In the mitochondria, fatty acids undergo Î²-oxidation to release energy. Beta- oxidation is a metabolic pathway whereby a fatty acid is broken down step by step, two carbon atoms at a time. The chemical energy locked up in the carbon compounds is released in a controlled manner and used to generate ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), which is used to fuel cellular processes. Depending on the chain length and the number of double bonds in the molecule, the exact energy yield of the different fats varies, however 1 g of fat is believed to release ~37 kJ (9 kcal) of energy irrespective of its precise structural properties. Almost all unsaturated fatty acids can be synthesized in the body after a series of fatty acid chain elongation and desaturation steps and an enzyme complex, fatty acid synthase, catalyses this process. Desaturases present in plants are capable of inserting double bonds at positions 3, 6 and 9 from the terminal methyl group, but animal and human desaturases are only capable of inserting double bonds at specific positions beyond carbon 6. For this reason, there are several fatty acids, termed essential fatty acids (EF) and they are derived through a series of enzyme catalysed desaturation and elongation reactions that usually take place in the cell cytosol or in the mitochondria.
Alpha-linoleic acid metabolism
In addition to its use in the synthesis of longer chain fatty acids, ALA is also used a substrate for Î²-oxidation in humans, and the ratio of ingested [13C] ALA use in Î²-oxidation is estimated from the appearance of labelled CO2 in the breath. The extent of partitioning of ALA towards Î²-oxidation (fig.4) is comparatively stable over short periods of time and changing the amount of either ALA or long-chain n-3 PUFA in the diet does not considerably alter this process. Besides the conversion to CO2 by the activity of the Krebs cycle, carbon in acetyl-CoA generated by fatty acid Î²-oxidation can also be recycled and used in de novo fatty acid synthesis. According to the reports from previous studies, the concentrations of saturated fatty acids (SFA) and mono saturated fatty acids (MUFA) in plasma are higher in triacylglycerols (TAG) than phosphatidylcholine (PC)  (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. Summary of the relative partitioning of ALA between desaturation/elongation and Î²-oxidation in human liver .
Gender differences in partitioning of ALA to Î²-oxidation and conversion to omega-3 LCPUFA
The total concentration of labelled SFA and MUFA in plasma lipids is 20% higher in men compared to women, which implies that there is greater partitioning of ALA towards Î²-oxidation in men compared to women. One general implication is that the extent of partitioning of ALA towards Î²-oxidation and carbon recycling may be significant in the regulation of the availability of ALA for conversion to longer-chain PUFA. There are currently only two reports which have directly compared the rate of ALA conversion in women and men of reproductive age. Burdge and Wootton  showed that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA was considerably greater (2.5-fold and >200-fold, respectively) in women aged about 28 years than in a similar study of men of same age . This finding is supported by a kinetic analysis, which demonstrated that the rate constant coefficient for the conversion of DPA n-3 to DHA was about four-fold more in women compared to men . This difference may reflect the greater availability of ALA in women than in men, due in part to lower partitioning towards Î²-oxidation in females. Besides the differences between men and women in the extent of partitioning of ALA towards Î²-oxidation, it is likely that there is a gender-related difference in the activity of the desaturation/elongation pathway. One possible explanation for the greater synthesis of EPA and DHA from ALA in women compared to men is the action of oestrogen. It is suggested that oestrogen may increase the activity of enzymes in the desaturation/elongation pathway, and this is supported by data showing that oestrogen based hormone replacement in postmenopausal therapy resulted in greater plasma dihomo-Î³-linolenic and arachidonic acid concentrations than before treatment .
Conversion of ALA to n-3 LCPUFA
A general pathway for the conversion of ALA into longer-chain omega-3 PUFA is described below (Fig.5). ALA is metabolised to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3) via eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5n-3) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA; 22:5n-3), However, conversion is not 100% efficient. Desaturation of DPA at the Î”-4 position to make DHA does not occur via a single step catalysed by Î”-4 desaturase, but also requires elongation and desaturation of DPA and tetracosahexenoic acid in microsomes, followed by a chain shortening step which occurs in peroxisomes to produce DHA, the so called 'Sprecher Pathway'. The capacity of humans to produce DHA from ALA is found to be very limited. It has been estimated that less than 8% of ALA is metabolised to EPA, and that only between 0.02% and 4% of ALA is metabolised further to DHA [9,13,14], with women having a greater ability for DHA synthesis than men.
Figure 5. Metabolism of omega- 3 essential fatty acid (Adapted from Napier & Sayanova, 2005).
Eicosanoids- LCPUFA derived factors
The metabolites of the EFAs have several important physiological functions. The oxidised metabolites of fatty acids are known as eicosanoids and they act as important regulatory signals in the body and can bring about inflammatory effects. Eicosanoids are produced by cells to act in their immediate environment in response to extracellular stimuli e.g. blood vessel damage, and the carbon metabolites of essential fatty acids function as the basis for these important regulatory signals. Eicosanoids are hormone-like compounds that function like homeostatic regulators throughout the body, either increasing or lowering a range of physiological processes and their action is localized rather than deriving from a specific gland such as the pancreas or adrenals. Eicosanoids are derived entirely from omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and they are usually come in pairs to regulate the bodily functions: one to increase its activity and the other to decrease. When there is an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 concentrations in the diet, the body produces less of one of the derivatives in the pair and as a result internal homeostasis is disturbed.
There are different families of eicosanoids (Fig. 6): the prostaglandins (which regulate muscle contraction, immune response and inflammation), prostacyclins (which inhibit platelet aggregation) and thromboxanes (which bring about platelet aggregation) and these are all produced by the action of cyclo-oxygenase enzymes. The leukotrienes (which affect microvascular and bronchial constriction or dilatation) and hydroxyfatty acids (which regulate cell adhesion) are produced by the action of lipoxygenases. The activity of the different eicosanoids produced from essential fatty acids is different; eicosanoids derived from the Cis omega-6 PUFAs usually exert pro-inflammatory effects, which are opposed by those originated from omega-3. Thus the diet has an important role to play in determining the final mix and strength of eicosanoids which are produced.
Figure 6. Mechanism of eicosanoid formation (adapted from Sanders & Emery 2003)
How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Exert Health Benefits
Roles of omega-3 fatty acids
Though fats in general have various uses in the human body, their most important functions are as structural components of cell membranes, brain, and a host of hormone-like substances that work like homeostatic regulators in the body, switching on or off a number of different metabolic functions so as to maintain physiological balance. Fatty acids are also used in the body as a means of energy storage, to provide energy, and to provide stable cellular membranes. They are important structural components of the phospholipid membranes of tissues all over the body and are enriched in the retina, brain, and spermatozoa, where docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) makes up â‰¥ 36.4% of total fatty acids [17,18]. Many substances in the body which play a role in the regulation of blood pressure and inflammatory responses are derived from omega-3 fatty acids and they are also important components of nerve cell membranes, and are essential for maintaining integrity of nerve cells. The anti-inflammatory effects of the omega-3 fats have particular importance for its protective effect against many diseases. A further well-described function of omega-3 fatty acids is its effects on the development and maintenance of retinal function. Omega-3 fats also play a significant role in the production of prostaglandins which are effective hormone-like substances. Prostaglandins help to regulate the production of other hormones and the functions of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. Prostaglandins also help out to normalize large numbers of major physiological functions including blood clotting, blood pressure, nerve transmission, inflammatory and allergic responses.
Effect of omega-3 LCPUFA on cell function
The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cell function is also well studied[19,21]. Each cell in our body is bounded by a cell membrane composed primarily of fatty acids. The cell membrane makes sure that waste products are promptly removed from the cell and allows the right amounts of nutrients to enter the cell. As cell membranes are composed of fat, the integrity and fluidity of our cell membranes is influenced, to a great extent, by the type of fats we consume. Cells in which the content of n-3 fatty acids is sub-optimal are unable to communicate effectively with other cells and also have a reduced capacity to retain water and essential nutrients. Diets with large amounts of saturated or hydrogenated fats make cell membranes that are hard with less fluidity. In contrast, diets rich in omega-3 fats make cell membranes with a high degree of fluidity. These differences in the properties of the cell membrane affect cell function.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Its Importance in Human Nutrition
Health benefits of omega-3s
During the 50 years essential fatty acids, especially omega-3 fatty acids, have been widely researched by scientists. This research has brought some exceptionally interesting results in terms of the possible role of omega-3 fatty acids in preventing and treating many modern diseases. The strongest evidence for the health benefits of fatty acids is in the area of heart disease. It has been reported in many clinical studies that omega-3 fatty acids benefit heart health, mainly through their anti-atherogenic (preventing the formation of artery-blocking atherosclerotic plaques) and vasodilatory (widening of blood vessels) effects [22-25]. Also omega-3 fats help to prevent thrombosis (formation of blood clots) by stopping platelets (thrombocytes) from sticking together and forming blood clots[25,26]. Omega-3 fatty acids have been made known to lower mild hypertension when it is due to cardiovascular disease, specially atherosclerosis. Also in some studies it has been reported that omega-3s are important both for the retina and blood supply through the tiny capillaries in the eyes [28,29]. It has been also reported that omega-3s have positive effects on neural and brain development [28,30,31]. Several lines of evidence suggest that diminished omega-3 fatty acid concentrations are associated with mood disorders and omega-3 supplementation may benefit persons with mood disorders. But clinical data are not yet available regarding omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of major depression and no conclusions have been made regarding the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in mental health. Researchers have also found that omega-3 intake is associated with a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and the supplement of omega-3 will also have protecting effect on the nervous system and improve brain function . Also it has been reported that omega-3s lower the risk of cancer. They make the body's immune system stronger to protect against the appearance of new cancerous cells. It also make it difficult for a tumour to metastasize to other areas of the body. However, the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids, cancer is not as well known. Although some research supports the anti-cancer claims made for omega-3 fatty acids, some does not. The systematic review of the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk by Dr. MacLean and colleagues concluded that dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids is unlikely to prevent cancer. As omega-3s are natural anti-inflammatory agents they act to prevent or ease the symptoms of arthritis, menstrual cramps, migraine headaches, and asthma [35-37]. Research also indicates that healthy omega-3 levels play a role in reducing the risk of osteoporosis. However no conclusions have been made about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention or treatment of asthma, osteoporosis and arthritis in the Evidence reports published in 2004 and 2005[39,40]. Some studies have also reported that omega-3 supplementation may help persons who undergo ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia (lack of ability to perform coordinated skilled movements) [41,42]. Each report on the health effects of omega-3 give recommendations on detailed research needs and how to enhance the quality of future studies and therefore the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids require more investigation.
Importance of omega-3 fatty acids during fetal development, neonatal development and adulthood
Although no conclusions have been made regarding the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in many of the reported diseases, considering the functions of omega-3 fatty acids, there is no doubt that n-3 fatty acids are important in human nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary fatty acids, required from conception through pregnancy and infancy and throughout life. The two most important periods for gaining these essential fatty acids are during fetal development and after birth until the biochemical development in the brain and retina is completed. It has been shown in a number of studies in monkeys that the infant at birth is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids when the maternal diet is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. It has been shown in humans that giving fish oil or sardines to pregnant women led to higher DHA concentrations in both maternal red blood cells and blood plasma and in cord red blood cells and blood plasma at the time of birth. In addition, the adult risk for chronic diseases may be influenced by intrauterine nutrition , signifying that early nutrition has an imprinting consequence on later life. This further highlights the importance of an adequate supply of essential PUFA during pregnancy, lactation, and infancy. DHA is a most important constituent of membrane phospholipids, particularly in the retina and brain and infants are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems if they do not get an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy. Lower concentrations of brain DHA are found in formula-fed infants than infants fed human milk [47,48] and formula-fed infants also have lower intelligence quotients. However the benefit and importance of increased maternal omega-3 fatty acid consumption for term infants where the mother is not deficient in essential fatty acids is not clear. When we consider the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in adulthood, it has been reported that poor memory, heart problems, fatigue, mood swings or depression, dry skin, brittle nails and hair, constipation, frequent colds, accelerated aging and poor circulation are some of the symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in adults  .
Recommended intakes of omega-3 Fatty acids
As a result of the beneficial health effects of the omega-3 fatty acids, health agencies across the world have recommended that we should increase our intake of omega-3 LCPUFA. It is also clear that the fatty acid composition of the typical Western diet today is very different to the diets which were present at other times in human evolution. Prehistoric humans evolved on a diet that consisted primarily of fresh fruits, leafy vegetables and animals and all these foods provided a fairly good balance of omega-6 and omega-3 PUFA upon which physiological and metabolic processes were established. For millions of years the approximate 1: 1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 remained unchanged [4,51,52]. Significant changes in the composition of the food supply of western societies over the past 150 years have resulted in an increase in the consumption of omega-6 PUFA and a corresponding decrease in the intake of omega-3 PUFA [4,51-53]. This change in the food supply is attributed to a number of factors. Modern food production methods decreased the omega-3 fatty acid content of many foods. The current western diets do not supply sufficient omega-3 LCPUFA or an appropriate balance between omega-3 and omega-6. It has been suggested that this imbalance has contributed to increased incidence of diseases like cardio vascular disease and inflammatory conditions.
Nutrition experts hold opposing views both on how much omega-3 and omega-6 we require, and the optimum ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Some suggest consuming equal quantities (a 1:1 ratio), while others suggest no more than 10 omega-6s to each omega-3. It looks as if the ratio between the two is what is really important. Intake of too much omega-6 compared to omega-3 may increase the risk of numerous health problems. Also there are some side effects and precautions to be aware of when we ingest large amounts of omega- 3 fatty acid supplements. Some side effects from taking over dose of omega -3 fatty acid supplements are gastrointestinal complaints, increased bleeding and increased plasma glucose levels . Even though there is no clear consensus on the recommended daily amount of omega- 3 that we should aim to consume daily, recently European Food Safety Agency has proposed a Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI) of 2g per day of Alpha Linolenic Acid. A suggestion of the level of EPA and DHA needed is provided by some authorities such as The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and National Heart foundation of Australia, who recommend a combined EPA and DHA intake of 500mg per day[56,57] and the UK government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in 2004 who suggested a minimum of 450mg per day. The Department of Health in the United Kingdom advise an omega-3 PUFA intake of a minimum of 0.2 percent of energy . Also, the Task Force of the British Nutrition Foundation proposes a daily omega-3 PUFA consumption ranging from 0.5 to 2.5 percent of energy in the form of ALA. The IOM (U.S. Institute of Medicine) set an Adequate Intake for ALA, based on the median daily intake of healthy Americans who are not likely to be deficient in this nutrient . The Adequate Intakes of ALA are shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Adequate Intakes of ALA for children, adolescents, adults and pregnant and lactating women
Source: Institute of Medicine
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids
There are wide range of dietary sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from both plants and animals, but the highest concentrations come from fish for omega-3 and meat for omega-6 as animals will provide the preformed long chain members of these fatty acid families. Interestingly, it is because of the fact that fish consume algae which themselves are rich sources of EPA and DHA that fish is a much better source of omega-3 LCPUFA than land animals.
EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are found mainly in fatty fish such as mackerel, sardine, salmon, tuna, herring, lake trout, capelin (codefish) and anchovy (Table 2.) As far as supplementation is concerned the two primary sources of EPA and DHA are currently either cod liver oil or fish body oil from fatty fish such as Tuna, Anchovy or Sardines. Either is acceptable as sources of EPA and DHA, but on the whole cod liver oil tends to be less concentrated in the fatty acids while also providing vitamins A and D. Although fish contain high levels of EPA and DHA they contain only low amounts of ALA.
Table 2. Dietary sources of EPA and DHA
Eicosapentaenoic acid(20:5 n3) Docosahexaenoic acid(22:6 n3)
Freshwater fish (5-13%) Sardine (9-13%)
Pacific anchovy (18%) Pacific anchovy (11%)
Capelin (codfish) (9%) Mackerel (8%)
Mackerel (8%) Capelin (codfish) (3%)
Herring (3-5%) Herring (2-3%)
Sardine (3%) Freshwater fish (1-5%)
Note: Values in parentheses represent percent of total fatty acid.
Table 3. Total EPA and DHA content of selected fish
Atlantic mackerel 2.5
Atlantic salmon,farmed 1.8
Pacific herring 1.7
Atlantic herring 1.6
Lake trout 1.6
Bluefin tuna 1.6
Sardines, canned,drained 1.1
ALA is found in plants, animals, plankton and marine species. Up to 80% of the fatty acids in leafy green plants are in the form of ALA; but leafy plants do not contribute significant amounts of ALA to our diets as their overall fat content is low. Flax is the richest source of ALA in the North American diet. ALA is also found in canola oil, walnut oil, olive oil, and soybean oil; in nuts such as butternuts and walnuts; in soybeans and pumpkin seeds; in omega-3-enriched eggs; and in purslane. Fruits tend to have a lower ALA content than vegetables .
Table 4. Food Sources of ALA
Source: Institute of Medicine
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered as essential fatty acids. They are necessary for human health and must come from the diet because they cannot be produced by the body. In reality, like vitamins and minerals they are essential to us and some people even refer to them as Vitamin F. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to membrane structure, and are required for the formation of eicosanoids and other derivatives which have important biological functions. Although the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids require further investigation it has been shown in many studies that the increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids have protective effects against such diverse conditions as atherosclerosis, thrombosis, multiple sclerosis, major depression and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. In addition, omega-3 PUFAs have been shown to relieve pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and in a number of other painful conditions. Omega-3 deficiency doesn't get as much attention as traditional nutrient deficiencies because no individual country has set a recommended daily intake (RDI). However, many health organizations have set recommended adequate dietary intakes for omega-3 and there is a worldwide agreement that individuals have to consume more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acids to encourage good health. However, Omega-3 dosage is not a one size- fits-all formula. Because omega-6 and omega-3 compete for the same enzymes to make a host of regulatory substances, the requirements for omega-3 EPA/DHA are profoundly influenced by a person's dietary choices: the higher the omega-6 consumption, the higher the need for omega-3.With this in mind our body then has the right balance of fats to keep it healthy. For most people a normal dietary intake will be safe and beneficial. However some people may experience problems with high-dose supplementation of omega- 3 fatty acids such as increased bleeding and gastrointestinal problems.