Getting enough omega-3 is one of those dietary requirements that’s discussed a lot these days, but how do you know if you’re actually getting enough of it?
And what do you do if you find out your omega-3 index is horribly low, as I found out recently…?
To put this into context: On the whole, I’m pretty good with what I put into my body. I’m certainly no saint – there’s no chocolate biscuit that’ll escape my clutches if it passes within 10 feet of my nimble fingers – but I’ve always been pretty good at consuming lots of the right things and less of the wrong things. So when Seven Seas asked me to take part in their #TrueAge campaign and test my omega-3 index to see if it could be improved over the course of three months, I have to admit I was a little concerned that there wasn’t much to improve.
Oh, how utterly wrong I was.
My diet: The good and the bad
To give you an idea of how “healthy”(!) I am, my diet can be summed up as below.
- I’m not a vegetarian but eat meat in moderation, eating mostly chicken, eggs, fish and just occasionally red meat
- I mostly cook from scratch and rarely eat packet foods or ready meals
- We have takeaways about once or twice a year, if that
- I don’t drink coffee, tea or fizzy drinks, and consume very little alcohol – mostly water and green tea
- I try to eat as many vegetables as possible with a little fruit on the side and avoid eating the high-sugar (tropical) fruits too often
- I have very little dairy and instead have almond milk, coconut yoghurt and goat’s butter
- I avoid everyday foods that have a lot of sugar and salt in them (cereals, breads, processed foods, etc.)
- I always, always have a good breakfast
- I don’t keep sweet treats in our cupboards or fridge as a general rule, instead keeping nuts, apples and berries as snacks
- I have a sweet tooth and find it hard to resist puddings, biscuits and cakes that are offered to me
- I eat sporadically and sometimes realise most of the day has gone by and I’ve forgotten to eat lunch (I blame being self-employed)
- I eat just about everything so find portion control difficult when faced with endless amounts of food (I’ve been known to have thirds as well as seconds at my parents’ house)
Therefore you would think that overall my diet was reasonably good, no? I eat plenty of the healthy stuff, I just find it hard to resist the naughty stuff on top. But overall I’m not eating tons of processed food and little of the healthy stuff… it’s the opposite.
The test and my omega-3 index results
Seven Seas have launched a True Age campaign where they’re encouraging you to join the #TrueAge movement and live the way you feel on the inside: “Doing what you love and what makes you happy, regardless of your age, is what will help keep you feeling young and living your true age.”
As part of this campaign they asked me to send them a blood sample which was sent to Southampton University for my omega-3 index to be tested. The sample kit had a little plastic device that pricks the end of your finger (if you’ve ever given blood they use the same type of thing to get a sample) for you to put a few droplets of blood onto a card that gets sealed and sent off in the post.
Thank goodness you can’t see the needle. (Needles and I do not get on.) The easiest way to describe it is that it works like a retractable pen: You put it firmly on the pad of your finger and click. It was a bit of a sharp “prick” to the end of my finger that left it a bit sore for a couple of hours, but that’s just me being a baby.
So – the results. I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THIS.
Professor Philip Calder, a Professor of Nutritional Immunology within Medicine specialising in omega-3 fatty acids at the University of Southampton, reviewed my results and provided the below comment…
“Fatty acids have been measured in Catherine’s red blood cells. The omega-3 fatty acid content of red blood cells – the fatty acids in the membrane of the cells – is considered to be a good indicator of how much omega-3s are being eaten. The omega-3s of greatest interest are EPA and DHA. A higher intake of EPA and DHA, and so a greater content in red blood cells, is linked with better health, including heart health. This is because the amount of EPA and DHA in red blood cells mirrors the amount in tissues like the heart.
“Researchers have defined the omega-3 index as the combined amounts of EPA plus DHA in red blood cells and suggest that this index be used as an indicator of heart health, just like blood cholesterol or blood pressure might be used. An omega-3 index of 4 or below would be a cause for concern, while an index of 8 or above would be a good sign.
“Catherine’s sample gives an omega-3 index of 3.7. This is below the threshold for concern of 4 and indicates that Catherine is not eating anywhere near enough EPA and DHA. Catherine should consider including more fatty fish like salmon, sardines or mackerel in her diet. Alternatively, she could consider using an omega-3 supplement that provides EPA and DHA. It would be interesting to see what will happen with Catherine omega-3 index if she adopts either of these strategies to increase her EPA and DHA intake.
“The red blood cell membrane contains over 25 different fatty acids all present in different amounts. When Catherine’s omega-3 index (i.e. EPA and DHA) was measured the lab also measured all of the other fatty acids, so there is a lot of information in the analysis.”
What the WHAT?! I’m someone who likes to take a tin of plain sardines and just scoff them as a snack. They make me and the whole house stink, but they’re yummy and so good for you… I KNOW about needing lots of omega-3 in your diet. What’s worrying is that what I’m eating is obviously nowhere near enough.
When you see the results in black and white like that it’s a massive shock to the system. I am very, very aware of wanting to live a long and HEALTHY life. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink fizzy drinks, I exercise (even if it’s just walking on some days) regularly. So for people who don’t eat ANY foods that are high in omega-3 – namely oily fish – then their results would surely be even lower than mine and that’s serious cause for concern.
What is omega-3 and what are its benefits?
In case you’re a bit fuzzy about what omega-3 is, it’s basically an essential fatty acid found in high quantities in oily fish. Although it’s called a “fatty” acid it’s not bad, it’s good: It’s needed to regulate heart and brain activity and also benefits your vision. Seven Seas have been producing natural supplements and fish oils for 80 years and it’s the brand I’ve always associated with cod liver oil supplements.
Their supplements are a natural source of fish oil with cod liver oil and therefore high in omega-3, which helps to maintain good health as you get older. Omega-3’s main benefits are to the heart, your vision and your brain:
Heart: EPA & DHA support normal heart function
Vision: DHA supports the maintenance of normal vision
Brain: DHA supports normal brain function
I think what many of us in our midlife forget is that AS WELL as our physical health (making sure our joints stay supple and that we can still move and exercise as we get older), we must ensure our faculties stay in shape. I want my heart to stay strong so I can continue to lead an active life. I want my vision to stay as good as it can for as long as it can. I want my brain to function well all my life, if possible.
Diet has such a HUGE role to play in how we age. If we neglect it we’re running the risk of all sorts of problems as we grow old. If I can prevent ill health as much as possible simply by changing my diet and taking supplements, then I. Am. There.
Pin for later!
The trial and action I’m taking
It seems then that I’m a prime candidate for this trial. I have three months to increase my omega-3 index from 3.7 to 8 or above, and I’ve been researching the best ways to do it.
Firstly – Seven Seas have sent me three months’ worth of Simply Timeless Cod Liver Oil maximum strength capsules. You take one a day with a cold drink – I’m totally okay with taking supplements (though I know some people aren’t). I’m walking proof of someone that thinks their diet has lots of vitamins and nutrients in it when it’s woefully lacking in at least one very important area, so I don’t think taking supplements is a bad thing at all… quite the opposite, in fact.
Secondly – as well taking the daily capsule I’ve been looking into what foods are high in omega-3. I eat most of these foods already, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to increase these foods in my diet:
Foods high in omega-3
- Oily fish: mackerel, salmon, herring, anchovy, tuna, halibut, trout, swordfish
- Canned fish: anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sardines
- Cured fish: smoked salmon, salted mackerel, kippered herring
- Fish oil: salmon, sardine, cod liver oil, herring
- Seafood: oysters, mussels, squid, clams
- Chia seeds, flax seeds
- Vegetable oils: flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil
- Walnuts and walnut oil, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts
- Roasted soybeans, tofu
- Vegetables: spinach, squash, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, broccoli
With the exception of maybe anchovies (too salty!) and oysters (I just can’t get over that texture), I pretty much love ALL of these foods. Instead of a tin of sardines every now and then, I’m making sure I have oily fish 4-5 times a week. I’m going back to adding chia seeds to my daily protein smoothies (chia is the highest combined plant source of omega-3, fibre and protein). I’m eating nuts – in moderation – again after I stopped a while back because I was gorging myself on them. (I’m eating a mid-morning snack of a measured amount of macadamias, pecans and walnuts as I write this.)
What I hope to achieve
I’m a very competitive person. I saw that ‘score’ of 3.7 and thought That’s IT, I’ve got three months to get that number up to 8 or more. However, with the hectic lifestyles we lead these days, it can be hard to constantly think about whether we’re getting enough this and enough that in our diets. The cod liver oil capsules are perfect for me because although I work from home I do go on working trips a lot and can’t always eat to a routine and have access to all the foods I’d like (need) to eat.
But the good thing about the trial is that it’s been a wake-up call for me. There are lots of areas of my life that need improving: I need more exercise, I need more routine, I need more sleep. I need more water. I need more oily fish in my diet.
There are only so many times you can kid yourself you’re “being good” – being told you’re a 3.7 when you should an 8 or higher is hard to take. But in three months’ time we’ll be taking the test again to see if I manage to get it up there (I’m aiming for 8.5 minimum).
Do come back and read the follow-up post in the early autumn (probably September/October time) to see the results…!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into my omega-3 index – let me know if you’ve ever considered how much you’re getting in your diet and whether you think you may also be deficient in omega-3. Right, I’m off to make myself a spinach, mackerel and walnut salad… 😋
HOW YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT HOW MUCH OMEGA-3 YOU’RE GETTING IN YOUR DIET? TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS!
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Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Seven Seas (click here for my full disclosure). All content is original, however, and opinions are my own and 100% honest.