You’ve probably heard over and over again that omega-3s are good for you, but have you ever wondered why? And which omega-3 is the best?
What is an Omega 3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential polyunsaturated fat. Your body needs them to keep your heart healthy, your brain functioning properly, and inflammation in check.
Here’s a quick rundown of the three main types – we’ll save the deep dive for later:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid that can be found in some plant foods. Although it can be converted to EPA and DHA, the process is extremely inadequate. Hence, it is important to get EPA and DHA from other sources such as seafood.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) + docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are concentrated in seafood such as oily fish and shellfish and play important roles in regulating inflammation, cell health, and fetal development.
Keep scrolling to learn how many omega-3s you need to thrive, what types are important, and how to catch them all in your daily diet.
The National Institutes of Health recommend the following daily ALA intake based on how old you are and whether you were assigned a man (AMAB) at birth or a woman (AFAB) at birth.
Recommended daily amount of ALA
* The recommendation for Li’l Bebes is her total omega-3 fatty acid count. All other lines are just ALA.
What about EPA and DHA? A joint statement by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization recommends that adults who are not pregnant or breastfeeding should consume at least 0.25 grams of EPA and DHA daily.
PPE for the mums
Making a person grow is hard work! If you have a bun in the oven, aim for 1.4 grams of ALA and 0.2 grams of DHA and some EPA per day. These fats are critical to the development of the fetus.
Breastfeeding Shoot for 1.3 grams of AL and at least 0.3 grams of EPA and DHA per day.
You can get your daily filling entirely from healthy foods, but some people also take omega-3 supplements.
The most natural way to level up your level is to fill your plate with delicious seafood, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens (including seaweed!).
Some food manufacturers also fortify their products with additional omega-3 fatty acids (#bless). Check the labels of these commonly enriched nouns:
- Soy drinks
What about nutritional supplements?
For sure! Omega-3 supplement pills are widely available and generally safe.
You have several types to choose from:
- Fish oil. Made from oily fish, packed with EPA and DHA.
- Krill oil. Made from krill (duh), a small crustacean that contains EPA and DHA.
- Cod liver oil. Filled with EPA, DHA and vitamins A and D.
- Algae oil. Vegetarian, this is for you! Made from seaweed, it’s packaged in the DHA – and sometimes in the EPA.
- Flaxseed oil. Fills your ALA tank (vegetables too!).
ALA is the most common omega-3 in the grocery store. You can find it in many plant foods like leafy vegetables, vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts. To maximize the health benefits of ALA, your body converts it to EPA and DHA. If not converted, it will be stored like any other fatty acid.
Do you feel a little painful and sore? There’s an omega-3 for that.
Science says your body uses EPAs – which are found in seafood – to fight inflammation.
Research suggests that EPA can also help relieve depression and anxiety. However, this does not mean that fish oil pills can replace a legitimate antidepressant.
A 2011 meta-analysis of research on omega-3 supplements and depression shows that supplements containing more than 60 percent EPA were effective in treating depression, while lower concentrations of EPA were not.
Consume EPA = eat seaweed or oily fish. But remember, your body can get some EPA from ALA too.
Say hello to DHA, the brain and vision booster!
EPA and DHA usually work hand in hand. Research shows that they have several benefits when consumed together:
- decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- a healthier heart
- lower risk of heart attack
- Weight management
- healthy fetal development
Again, you can convert small amounts of ALA to DHA, but you must also get it through diet.
Let’s pull the curtain back: ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid product, but it’s not really useful on its own.
What can a human body do? Convert these bad guys! Your liver works hard to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but it’s not a very efficient process – a conversion rate of less than 5 to 8 percent.
tl; dr: Omega 3 conversion is one thing, but ingesting EPA and DHA through foods and supplements is a much faster way to increase your levels.
There are at least eight other omega-3 fatty acids, and all of them are tongue twisters. (Thank god for acronyms!)
- Hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA)
- Stearidonic acid (SDA)
- Eicosatrienoic Acid (ETE)
- Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA)
- Heneicosapentaenoic acid (HPA)
- Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA)
- Tetracosapentaenoic acid
- Tetracosahexaenoic acid
Which foods have the most omega-3 fatty acids?
There are so many foods rich in omega-3s. Here is a selection.
For ALA …
- Canola, soybean and flaxseed oils
- whole or ground flaxseed
- Chia seeds
Catch extra DHA and EPA in these fish-tasting options …
Severe omega-3 deficiency – quite rare in the US – has been linked to flaky skin, arthritis, itching, and inflammation.
But a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean you’re all clear on the omega-3 department. Medical experts suggest that many American adults are not consuming enough DHA and EPA to lead their healthiest lives.
One study found that while the American Heart Association recommends 2 servings of seafood per week for adequate omega-3 intake, most Americans don’t eat as much oily fish.
The omega-3 requirements for mums are even higher. However, research shows that pregnant people do not eat enough seafood to get the EPA and DHA they need for their own health and for the development of the fetus.
tl; dr? Chances are that a small boost in omega-3-rich foods could help you get your levels up to the healthy zone.
Like any dietary fat, omega-3s provide energy – but they are useful in other ways too!
You’ve probably heard that omega-3s are good for your heart. But why?
According to a 2017 research roundup, here are all of the ways this can affect your heart health:
- It lowers healthy people’s risk of heart attack or heart failure.
- It increases HDL levels (the good cholesterol, yay!), But * also * could increase LDL (the bad kind, boo!).
Omega-3 fatty acids for expectant mothers (pregnancy)
DHA in pregnant mothers helps develop babies’ retinas and brains. Even some baby foods sold in the supermarket are fortified with DHA so that the little munchkins can get what they need.
If you’re pregnant or hoping to get pregnant, improve your EPA and DHA intake statistics. Recent research shows that higher levels of omega-3s during pregnancy are linked to the following benefits:
- lower risk of premature birth
- fewer low birth weight infants
- fewer infants who need intensive care
- lower infant mortality rate
- lower fasting blood sugar in mothers with gestational diabetes
- lower risk of postpartum depression
Unfortunately, there isn’t much scientific evidence to definitely link the omega-3 prenatal vitamins to a baby’s overall health. So eat more seafood to see results.
Researchers are eager to prove that omega-3 fatty acids can lower the risk of cancer, but the evidence is still incomplete.
Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids could specifically lower the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.
Increase in brain performance and support Alzheimer’s prevention
There is evidence that taking DHA along with vitamins E and B may help improve memory and brain performance in older adults.
An analysis of 21 studies from 2016 showed that consuming more fish or DHA was linked to a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
See you there: reducing the risk of macular degeneration
People who eat a lot of omega-3 packaged fatty fish tend to have a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In other words, they have a great vision.
A study of 2,275 people aged 65 and over found that people who ate fatty fish at least once a week had a 53 percent lower risk of AMD.
More vision virtues
It is clear that there is a link between omega-3 fatty acids and healthy eyes.
There is mixed evidence that EPA and DHA supplements can also help treat dry eye conditions. Basically, we need more research to prove (or disprove) this.
Research on the link between omega-3 fatty acids and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is still limited.
Studies show that people with RA who consume fish oil and long chain fatty acids need less pain medication. There is also evidence that omega-3 fatty acids improve swelling, pain, and stiffness.
Other diseases that could benefit from omega-3 fatty acids
Scientists see a lot of potential for using omega-3 fatty acids to improve health. Check out the research:
- Children with ADHD have lower levels of DHA and EPA, so supplementation can improve cognition and alertness.
- High fish consumption is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of depression.
- According to a review of four studies, omega-3 supplements can improve lung function in people with cystic fibrosis.
The side effects of taking omega-3 supplements are usually mild. You could experience:
- a bad taste
- bad breath
- stinking sweat
- stomach pain
- a headache
Always let your doctor know if you are taking a supplement, especially if you are also taking any prescription drugs. There is always the possibility of an interaction between your medications and supplements like fish oil.
For example, high doses of fish oil can affect clotting. This can be a big problem if you are already taking an anticoagulant such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important nutrient for maintaining a healthy heart, lungs, and immune system. Your body can make some of the omega-3 fatty acids, but you also need a good supply of ALA, EPA, and DHA.
Research has mixed up on how much omega-3 supplements affect health, but there is good evidence that they improve heart health, lower inflammation, and help with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration.
Make sure to speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements.