What is the big deal about omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential since our body cannot create them and we need them for optimal functioning.

Eating foods rich in omega-3 should suffice, you might think. But Nature didn’t create all omega-3s equal. There is a plant version (ALA – alpha-linoleic acid) and an animal version (DHA and EPA).

Our body needs omega-3 in animal version. Sure, our own body can do some conversion of plant omega-3 to animal omega-3, but it is a very inefficient process for our body.

In fact, our brain development that separates us from monkeys was caused by the diet our hunter-gathering ancestors had: rich sources of animal omega-3 (such as cold water fish, meat and organs from large grass-eating animals).

For us, the king of omega-3s is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). It is the most abundant fatty acid in our brain. It is crucial for our cognitive and visual functions. We need to eat it. Without it, we are not happy and our brains might start shrinking. Read further about how and why a plant omega-3 (found in flaxseed or chia seeds) is not enough.

1. All omega-3s originate from plants

Grass and plankton (small plant organisms in the oceans) are made up of many cells.

Each cell contains a green chloroplast.

Each chloroplast contains the parent of all omega-3 essential fatty acids – ALA (alpha-linoleic acid).

We can source ALA from flaxseed, chia seeds or walnuts.

2. How plant-eating animals convert ALA to beneficial omega-3s

When a cow eats grass, her body converts ALA into beneficial DHA and EPA.

Similar thing hapens when a mackerel eats a shrimp who eats green plankton, full of ALA.

The conversion of ALA to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) happens in shrimp’s and mackerel’s bodies.

Us humans then find DHA and EPA in the meat of these animals, whether it is grass-eating beef or a mackerel.

3. Can we convert ALA to beneficial DHA and EPA ourselves?

omega 3 ALA conversion to DHA and EPA

Sources of plant omega-3, such as linseed or chia seeds, always have omega-3 in ALA version. So we need to covert it to DHA and EPA versions, which are beneficial to us.

But us humans are not so good at this conversion since only 6% of ALA converts to EPA and 4% of ALA converts to DHA.

Some populations cannot do this conversion at all, since they lack the key enzyme (delta-6-desaturase).

To ensure sufficient amount of DHA and EPA we have to eat animals that have done the conversion from ALA for us. DHA and EPA are concentrated in the fat of grass-fed beef and lamb and oily fish such as mackerel or tuna.

4. Are you deficient in DHA and EPA?

The signs of a deficiency are these symptoms:

  • brittle nails
  • dry, flaky skin
  • cracked skin on heels or fingertips
  • dry hair
  • painful joints
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • poor concentration
  • bad memory
  • allergies
  • poor wound healing.

Next time you are considering a healthy meal for you and your family, consider grass-fed beef and lamb. They have done the conversion of plant omega-3 ALA into DHA and EPA for us.

However, most conventional beef and lamb has been fed grain to fatten them up. The grain changes the fat profile of their meat. Nearly all omega-3s are replaced with omega-6. Too much omega-6 is not a good thing. So make sure your beef or lamb has been grass-fed all its life.

The amount of feed and fertilizers per 1 beef animal

As a calf, it is fed 100 kg of feed in a creep feeder:
60 kg barley
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

growing steer (for 100 days) ratio:
350 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed

finishing steer (for 80 days)
600 kg barley

TOTAL feed per steer:
1010 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

Source: AHDB

Pesticide figure based on yearly application of pesticides on barley in 2018 (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):

spring and winter barley were mixed in equal ratio for simplicity.
Pesticides in spring barley:
157.5 g
Pesticides in winter barley:
307.5 g

TOTAL 465 g of pesticides = to litres it is about 465 ml of pesticides per year.

Source: Pesticides usage survey 284 for arable crops in the United Kingdom 2018 (National Statistics)

Fertilizer figure (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):
nitrogen: 24.14 kg
phosphate: 4.59 kg
potash: 5.95 kg
sulfur: 5.95 kg

TOTAL 40.63 kg of fertilizers

Source: British survey of fertilizer practice for 2018 (DEFRA)