Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-3 foods. The benefits of fish oil. No doubt you’ve heard these mentioned before. But is it all true? While this article will present the fundamentals of omega-3 fatty acids—what they are, how much you need, and how you can get them naturally—be sure to check out the article focused 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. In this way, you will be empowered to make the best decisions for your personal health.
A Guide to Omega-3 Fatty Acids
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.
Food Sources of Omega-3 Fats
So what foods are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids? 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 fatty acids, whereas fish with a lower fat content—such as bass, tilapia and cod—contain lower levels of omega-3 fats.
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.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: How Much Should You Be Getting?
Below are the daily amounts of omega-3 fats agreed upon by various health authorities for optimal health benefits:
EPA + DHA
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 on the chart, 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.
With 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 this article 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!
*You can find more essential heart health information like this in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.