Omega-3s: Essential for Health
Do you know what they are?
Author: Living Well Eating Smart Registered Dietitian Team
When thinking about fats, it can be helpful to create a visual in your mind regarding the types of foods they come from. Fats that remain liquid at room temperature, like plant oils, nuts and fish, are called unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are those that remain solid at room temperature, such as butter, shortening and lard.
On the whole, unsaturated fats tend to be more beneficial than saturated fats.1 There are all stars in the unsaturated fat family too, like omega-3s. From reducing triglyceride levels in blood, blood pressure, risk for heart attack, sudden cardiac attack and coronary heart disease and inflammation associated with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis to aiding eye and brain development and health, omega-3 fats are powerful allies in maintaining your health.2-7
Since your body does not produce omega-3 fats on its own, it is essential to obtain them from the foods you eat and with supplementation.
There are three types of omega-3 fats primarily focused on: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are marine-based and come from fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as sea vegetables such as algae and seaweed;8 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is plant-based and found in foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and canola oil.
Much of the research on omega-3s stems from the observation that meal plans high in seafood, and thereby EPA and DHA omega-3s, tend to have positive impact on individual's heart health. For this reason, the majority of research has been done on EPA and DHA versus ALA.
Although your body can convert plant-based ALA omega-3 fat into EPA and DHA, the process is extremely inefficient. Therefore, although it is recommended to incorporate both marine-based and plant-based omega-3 fats into meals, attention should be given to marine-based sources since intake tends to fall short.9
Get Your Omega-3s!
- Aim to consume between 250-500 milligrams combined DHA and EPA each day.10
- Meet this goal by eating 8 to 12 ounces of seafood weekly, with at least eight ounces coming from omega-3 sources such as salmon, sardines, tuna, oysters and mussels.
- Experiment with sea vegetables such as algae and seaweed in salads, sushi and soups.
- Enjoy ALA-providing foods such as ground flaxseeds, canola oil, walnuts, chia seeds and edamame in meals and snacks regularly.
- Keep your eyes out for omega-3 fortified foods, such as milk, to incorporate into your weekly grocery list.
- Should you supplement? Research has shown significant coronary heart disease benefits when supplementing with marine-based omega-3s, since many of us fall short of meeting weekly seafood recommendations.11 As with any supplement, get the okay from your healthcare provider first.
- Women of childbearing age, nursing women and children should limit their intake of large predatory fish when meeting weekly seafood goals. Doing so will help minimize contact with the environmental contaminant methyl mercury.
- The joint guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designates DHA and EPA omega-3 sources such as salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, oysters, trout and Pacific mackerel as best choices due to their lower methyl mercury content.
- Children, women of childbearing age and nursing women should keep their intake of solid white albacore tuna (and any other fish in the good choice category) to no more than one serving a week with no other fish consumed that week as well.
1 Li Y, Hruby A, Bernstein AM, et al. Saturated fats compared with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: A prospective cohort study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;66(14):1538-1548. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2015.07.055.
2 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review Team. Types of dietary fat and cardiovascular disease: A systematic review. 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Project. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, July 2020. Available at: https://nesr.usda.gov/2020-dietary-guidelines-advisory-committee-systematic-reviews.
3 Bernasconi AA, Weist MM, Lavie CJ, et al. Effect of omega-3 dosage on cardiovascular outcomes: an updated meta-analysis and meta-regression of interventional trials. Mayo Clin Proc. 2021;96(2):304-313. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2020.08.034.
4 Eslick GD, Howe PR, Smith C, et al. Benefits of fish oil supplementation in hyperlipidemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cardiol. 2009;136:4-16.
5 Nestel P, Shige H, Pomeroy S, et al. The n-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid increase systemic arterial compliance in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76:326-30.
6 Miller PE, Van Elswyk M, Alexander DD. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Hyperten. 2014;27:885-96.
7 Wierenga KA, Pestka JJ. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammation - You are what you eat!. Front Young Minds. 2021;9:601068. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/frym.2021.601068.
8 Rocha CP, Pacheco D, Cotas J, et al. Seaweeds as valuable sources of essential fatty acids for human nutrition. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(9):4968. doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094968.
9 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2020. Nutrient intakes from food and beverages: Mean Amounts Consumed per Individual, by Gender and Age, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2017-2018.
10 Kus-Yamashita, MM, Filho, JM, McDonald, B, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids: health impacts. European J Nutr Food Saf. 2016;6(3):111-131.
11 Hu Y, Hu FB and Manson JE. Marine omega-3 supplementation and cardiovascular disease: and updated meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials involving 127,477 participants. J Am Heart Assoc. 2019 Oct;8(19):e013543. doi: https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.119.013543.