Omega Fats and Gluten Sensitivity
We’ve all gotten the memo that fat is back, but we know that not all fat is created equal. You’ve probably heard of so-called “good fats” and “bad fats” – but what about omega fats? Are they good or bad for those with gluten issues?
Below we will discuss all things omegas, including:
- What are omega fatty acids?
- What are the different types of omegas?
- Why you need omegas
- What happens when you don’t get enough omegas (and in the proper ratio)?
- Why Celiacs and those who are gluten sensitive may be at risk of deficiency of omegas
- How you can get omegas in your diet (including some healthy gluten-free recipes!)
What are Omega Fats?
The term omega fatty acids refers to a group of three type of fats:
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential polyunsaturated fats. What does that mean? Let’s break it down:
- Essential: When something is termed “essential” it means that your body doesn’t have the ability to produce it, so you must get it from your diet. If you don’t get any from your diet, you’ll eventually develop a deficiency which can have detrimental downstream effects leading to dysfunction and disease.
- Polyunsaturated: The term polyunsaturated refers to the chemical structure of the fat. Polyunsaturated means that it has many unsaturated or double bonds (poly = many). Why is the structure relevant? Because double bonds are a source of vulnerability in a fat. The more double bonds a fat has, the more unstable it is and the more opportunities it has to be damaged (to oxidize or become rancid) by elements like light, heat, and air.
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated, meaning they only have one double bond. Omega-9 fatty acids aren’t “essential,” as the body can produce them. Therefore, it isn’t as critical that they are taken in through diet and supplementation.
Because polyunsaturated fats (with multiple double bonds) are more delicate than monounsaturated fats (with one double bond), omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are more delicate than omega-9 fatty acids.
Types of Omega Fats (and why they matter)
Let’s take a closer look at each of the omega fatty acids – what they are and why you want to consume them in a deliberate ratio.
Omega-3s are named as such because the final double bond in the chemical structure is three carbon atoms from the “omega,” or tail end of the molecular chain. There are many types of omega-3 fats, but EPA, DHA, and ALA are the three most common:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): EPA produces chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA may also help reduce symptoms of depression.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): DHA makes up about 8% of brain weight and is critical to brain development and function.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): ALA benefits the heart, immune system, and nervous system. While ALA can convert to DHA in the body, the conversion is extremely inefficient, generally estimated at less than 10% of ALA converted to DHA.
Omega-6s are similar in structure to omega-3s, however, in this case, the last double bond is six carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule. While it seems like a small difference, it actually translates into some very different implications on your health.
Omega-6s are more inflammatory than omega-3s. While some level of inflammatory response in the body is needed (like for fighting an acute infection or illness), too much can increase the risk of inflammatory disease. There are two primary types of omega-6 fats:
- Linoleic Acid (LA): derived primarily from seeds, canola, soy, corn, and other grains. When eaten in high amounts, this fat can drive the inflammation process by inhibiting the beneficial effects of omega-3 fats. Linoleic acid is not a bad fat per se, but if eaten in high quantities relative to omega-3 intake, LA can drive inflammation too high.
- Gamma-linoleic acid (GLA): derived from evening primrose, borage, and black currant, GLA has been shown to be anti-inflammatory as well as possible cancer preventive properties.
Omega-9s are monounsaturated fats with one double bond that is located nine carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule. Omega-9 fatty acids aren’t strictly “essential,” as the body can produce them, so they aren’t as important to get from the diet.
Striking a Balance Between Omegas
While all omegas serve important functions in the body, it is important to strike the right balance in your consumption of each. An imbalance in your diet may contribute to a number of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer, psychiatric disorders, and autoimmune diseases. Here’s why:
- Omega-3s have a more significant impact on overall health than omega-6s. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. A diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. A diet of a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 will reduce inflammation. Since inflammation is at the root of nearly all disease, managing it is critical to just about every aspect of your health.
- Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes. This means that the amount of omega-6 in the diet directly affects the conversion of certain omega-3s to more useful forms. In other words, if there is too much omega-6 in the diet, it will block the conversion of omega-3 ALA (found in plant foods like flax), to long-chain beneficial omega-3 EPA and DHA. While this conversion is limited, it is still beneficial, and the presence of excess omega-6 will disrupt it.
- Having more omega-3 EPA and DHA in membranes reduces the ability of the Omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. In other words, the more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues in your body to produce damaging inflammation.
What is the Optimal Omega Ratio?
So, if it is important to keep the ratio of omega 3 to omega-6 in balance, what is the optimal ratio? Well, if we look to our ancestors to see how they ate based on the availability of food (and the lack of processed and industrialized food), we see that consumption of the two types of fatty acids was fairly even. Anthropological researchers who have studied diets throughout history found that diets were rich in seafood and other sources of omega-3 long chain fatty acids EPA and DHA and relatively low in omega-6s, as the only available sources were things like nuts and seeds. This research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1.
So how does this historic ratio of 1:1 compare to what the average American consumes today? Unsurprisingly, there has been a massive shift. Research suggests that the typical diet today results in an omega 6:3 ratio that averages about 16:1.
But don’t think you need to completely overhaul your diet. There isn’t any research that suggests that a 1:1 ratio is optimal. Instead, most experts agree that a ratio of 4:1 is an ideal target for the general population of adults and children. Even lower ratios of 2:1 or 3:1 have been shown to provide added benefit in the case of certain conditions like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma.
Key Body Functions of Omegas
All of the omega fatty acids serve key functions in the body:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
- Support cardiovascular health
- Support healthy brain function and cognition
- Maintain a healthy inflammatory response
- Support critical brain development of a fetus during pregnancy
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Provide energy
- Help stimulate skin and hair growth
- Maintain bone health
- Regulate metabolism
- Maintain the reproductive system
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
- May improve insulin sensitivity
- Aid in the permeability of cell membranes
- Helps maintain brain and nerve health
Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency
You probably get some routine lab work done by your healthcare practitioner, but Omega-3 isn’t often one of them. So how do you know if you’re deficient? Well, while there is not a standard test to diagnose an omega-3 deficiency, there are ways to analyze omega-3 levels. A simple option blood sample can check omega-3 levels in the blood fats or blood plasma. However, the amount of fatty acids in the blood can vary significantly depending on what you ate last and when, so this option isn’t entirely reliable. Alternatively, omega-3 status can be measured indirectly by analyzing the fatty acid composition of red blood cells. This approach is a bit more involved, as it looks at the long-term dietary intake of fats over several months. If testing isn’t available to you, try taking a look at your diet over a month. If you don’t consume sources of omega-3s like salmon at least twice per week, or take a supplement that contains EPA and DHA daily, chances are you are deficient. You can also keep an eye out for the symptoms of deficiency listed below:
- Skin issues: Omega-3 fats support the integrity of skin barriers. A deficiency of Omega-3s can manifest as skin issues such as irritation and dryness, and can make skin more susceptible to sunburn. In addition, Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties, so a deficiency can result in inflammatory skin conditions like acne.
- Depression: We’ve discussed that omega-3 fats make up a critical portion of the brain and are known to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects. A deficiency or lower levels of these fatty acids have been linked to depression. In addition, research has shown that omega-3 supplements can have a beneficial effect on depressive symptoms.
- Dry eyes: Omega-3 fats play a role in eye health by helping to maintain eye moisture. Associated symptoms can include eye discomfort and disturbances in vision.
Omega-3 deficiency can lead to a number of complications, from cognitive disease to the wide range of diseases that stem from inflammation. Keeping an eye out for signs of deficiency is important to maintaining your overall short- and long-term health. Omega-6 deficiency is extraordinarily uncommon in our society, as omega-6s are present in so many foods. However, symptoms of deficiency mimic those of omega-3 deficiency. In addition, as omega-9s can be produced by the body, deficiency is quite rare.
Gluten Sensitivity, Celiac Disease, & Omega Deficiency
As celiac disease impacts the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients, those with undiagnosed or recently diagnosed celiac disease commonly experience nutrient deficiencies. Research has identified the most common deficiencies as calcium, iron, fiber, folate, omega-3, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. In fact we have discussed many of these deficiencies and more (like fat, vitamin E and potassium) on our blog in the past. In fact, one study found that levels of DHA were decreased in subjects with active celiac disease. In addition, while serum levels of these fatty acids increased during remission, they still remained significantly lower than the levels in control subjects without celiac disease.
Gluten Free Food Sources of Omegas
Omega fatty acids are found in a number of foods as listed below. However, since the aim is to keep your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio low (and since your body can produce its own omega-9), your focus should be on consumption of omega-3s.
- Salmon (DHA and EPA)
- Sardines (DHA and EPA)
- Mackerel (DHA and EPA)
- Anchovies (DHA and EPA)
- Algae (DHA and EPA)
- Flaxseed (ALA)
- Chia seeds (ALA)
- Walnuts (ALA)
Many foods that contain omega-6 are beneficial for a number of other reasons, like their healthy fats and micronutrients. Others, like industrial seed oils, are detrimental to your health for other reasons. While omega-6s overall are more inflammatory than omega-3s, they don’t need to be strictly avoided, rather just balanced out with omega-3s. That said, I strongly recommend that you get your omega-6s from whole, healthy unprocessed foods like nuts and seeds, not processed industrial seed oils.
- Sunflower seeds
- Industrial seed oils like canola and sunflower oil (I do not advise the consumption of these!)
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- Macadamia nuts
- Industrial seed oils like canola and sunflower oil (I do not advise the consumption of these!)
When it comes to omega-3 supplementation, it’s important to seek out a reputable brand with trusted sourcing and testing.
Omega-3 Max capsules and liquid are molecularly distilled, high-concentration fish oils sourced from the cold, fresh waters off the Chilean coast. These waters provide the cleanest, most sustainable source of fish in the world. This product includes 1.3 g of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 850 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and 175 mg of docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) per serving as triglycerides, the preferred form. The bioidentical, triglyceride form found in this product allows for enhanced absorption and better assimilation in the body. This formulation is a convenient method of achieving optimal omega-3 levels in the body.
Gluten Free Recipes Rich in Omega-3s
So what is the best way to work the powerful properties of omega-3s into your diet? Here is some inspiration for some healthy and delicious recipes that are both gluten free and rich in omega-3s:
The Bottom Line
All three omega fatty acids play a role in overall health, but achieving a proper balance of omega 3 fatty acids to omega 6 and 9 fatty acids is critical to maintaining optimal health.
Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are more susceptible to omega-3 deficiency due to challenges with absorption in the small intestine. I recommend that those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity be particularly motivated to test levels, keep an eye out for signs of deficiency, include omega-3 rich foods in their diet and take a high quality omega-3 supplement. A focus on omega-3s will help to keep the important omega 3:6 ratio in check to manage inflammation and prevent disease.