Omega-3 is a fatty acid, which is essential to our well being. One of the first people to realise its importance was Oxford University scientist Hugh Sinclair. Back in the 1940s he realised that the Inuit ate vast amounts of fat yet hardly ever suffered from heart disease. He believed this was due to the protective effect of one fat, omega-3, found in oily fish.
However, at the time the idea that a fat could be good for us was so controversial that he was ridiculed and lost his post at the university. Undeterred, he continued to study omega-3 and put himself on an 'Eskimo diet'. For 100 days he ate nothing but seal blubber and fish. He found that he not only lost weight in spite of eating half a kilo of fat per day, but bled for increasingly long times when he cut himself. His blood had become very thin. He thought that this might be how omega-3 worked – by preventing red blood cells from being sticky so that they did not clot and cause heart failure.
After two seminal studies, the Seven Countries Study and the GISSI Study, which focused on heart disease, we now know that omega-3 does have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease. People who have had a heart attack and who take a gram of omega-3 a day are less likely to die suddenly of heart disease. Doctors think that omega-3 may have a protective effect against any cardiovascular disease. New research in this area will be published in autumn 2005.
Thirty years ago scientists realised omega-3 is an essential component of the brain, including the visual system. Boosting levels of omega-3 in the brain may help alleviate depression. Studies from America have correlated rates of depression with the amount of fish eaten – countries that eat less fish have higher rates of depression.
A huge amount of research has now been carried out on omega-3 ranging from its effect on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, autism, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis and even IQ. However, more research is needed before we can prove what omega-3 can or cannot do. In spite of this, we know that our diet used to be higher in omega-3 than it is now so many think we should try to elevate levels of omega-3 through eating vegetarian sources, such as flaxseeds and walnuts, or by eating more oily fish.
The UK's Food Standards Agency recommends that we eat at least one portion of oily fish a week. It also recommends that men, boys and women past child bearing age can eat up to four portions of oily fish a week, whereas girls and women of child bearing age (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) can eat up to two portions of oily fish a week.
The Natural Way to Beat Depression by Basant Puri & Hilary Boyd. Hodder and Stoughton, 2005
The Healing Power of Flax by Herb Joiner-Bey. Freedom Press Inc, 2004
The Omega Diet by Artemis Simopoulos and Jo Robinson. HarperPerennial, 1999
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