Omega-3 Fats: Are You Getting Enough?

By Phoebe Chi, MD

Omega-3. Fatty fish. The benefits of fish oil.  No doubt you’ve heard these mentioned before. But is it all true? 

Unfortunately, because of the ongoing research on this subject and our ever-evolving scientific understanding of it, the answer might actually be no—not all that you have heard about fish oil is still considered to be true.

Therefore I would like to spend some time on this topic by doing a two-part post. While today I will present the fundamentals of omega-3 fats—what they are, how much you need, and how you can get them naturally—a follow up article will focus specifically on fish oil supplements and their benefits, with a discussion on what is known about them, what has changed, and what you need to be aware of.

My hope is that by providing these up-to-date essentials that you will be empowered and encouraged to make the best decisions for your personal health. 

So without further ado, let’s get started!

Omega-3 Fats: What are They?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (‘the healthy fat’) that are important for the maintenance of normal functioning and metabolism. They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and  provide the starting point for the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, inflammation, and contraction and relaxation of artery walls. They even bind to receptors in cells and help regulate genetic function. Because of these reasons, omega-3 fats are thought to have a role in modulating many disease processes, including those of cardiovascular and autoimmune origin, those of the brain, as well as some cancers.

There are three main omega-3 fatty acids that you should be aware of: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Of these, EPA and DHA are the two that have been extensively studied, are known for their numerous health benefits, and are the reason why many people take fish oil supplements. It is important to remember the distinction between EPA/DHA and ALA as their sources are different.

So why do you even need to be aware of ALA? Because it cannot be produced by your body and is considered an essential fatty acid that must be obtained through outside sources. With that said—and being mindful to incorporate some ALA-rich foods into your diet—I encourage you to focus on getting enough EPA and DHA. Be aware that while some ALA supplements associate themselves with the health benefits of EPA/DHA, ALA actually has not been specifically studied in this respect, so such claims remain speculative. ALA does, however, convert to EPA and DHA in small amounts in your body, but this should not dissuade you from getting enough through food sources.


What are the Sources?

While the main sources of ALA are plants—seeds, nuts, and vegetables—EPA and DHA are naturally found in seafood. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines contain high amounts of omega-3 fats, whereas fish with a lower fat content—such as bass, tilapia and cod—contain lower levels.

As for omega-3 supplements, fish oil is the primary form for EPA/DHA, while algae oil is a good vegetarian alternative. Flaxseed oil provides ALA.

How Much Should You Get?

Below are the daily amounts of omega-3 fats agreed upon by various health authorities for optimal health benefits:

Adults:           0.5 g/day  (3.5 g/week)
Pregnancy:  0.65 g/day  (4.6 g/week)

Men:              1.6 g/day
Women:        1.1 g/day
Pregnancy:   1.4 g/day

As you can see below, the daily goals for EPA/DHA can be easily met through 2 to 3 servings of fatty fish per week. The reference table below can give you an idea of which foods to look out for and help guide some of your dietary choices.

Omega3Foods.jpgWith that said, some important questions remain: What about omega-3 supplements? Do the benefits of dietary omega-3’s translate to fish oil capsules, and are there any risks in taking them? In the next post I will address these questions as well as take a closer look at the specific health benefits of omega-3 fats.

In the meantime, here’s to healthy fats for better health!

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