You’ve probably heard over and over that omega-3 fatty acids are good for you, but have you ever wondered why? And also, which omega-3 is the best kind?
Keep scrolling for the deets on the benefits of omega-3s, which types matter, and how to catch ’em all in your daily diet.
What are omega-3s and can we benefit from them?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential polyunsaturated fat. Your body needs them to keep your heart healthy, boost your brain function, and keep inflammation at bay. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is an omega 3 that’s found in some plant foods. Although it can be converted into EPA and DHA, this process is extremely insufficient, so it’s important to get EPA and DHA from other sources like seafood.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) + Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are concentrated in seafood like fatty fish and shellfish and play important roles in regulating inflammation, cellular health, and fetal development.
Like any dietary fat, omega-3s give you energy — but they’re useful in other ways too!
1. Omega-<3s for heart health
You’ve probably heard that omega-3s are good for your heart. But why?
Here are all the ways it effects your heart health, according to a 2017 research summary:
- It lowers healthy folks’ risk of a heart attack or heart failure.
- It raises HDL levels (the good cholesterol, yay!), but *also* might raise LDL (the bad kind, boo!).
2. Omega-3s for expectant mamas (pregnancy)
DHA in pregnant mothers helps develop babies’ retinas and brains. Even some baby formula sold at the grocery store is fortified with DHA so the little munchkins get what they need.
If you’re pregnant or hoping to be, start beefing up your EPA and DHA intake stat. Recent research shows that higher levels of omega-3 during pregnancy are associated with these benefits:
- lower risk of premature birth
- fewer infants with low birth weight
- fewer infants needing intensive care
- lower infant death rate
- lower fasting blood sugar in mothers with gestational diabetes
- less risk of postpartum depression
Unfortunately, there just isn’t much scientific evidence to definitively link omega-3 prenatal vitamins with a baby’s overall health, so eat more low mercury seafood like salmon, herring, anchovies, pollock, haddock, and tilapia to see results.
3. Cancer prevention
Researchers are eager to prove omega-3s can reduce cancer risk, but evidence is still spotty.
4. Boosting brainpower and aiding Alzheimer’s prevention
A 2015 study suggested that taking DHA along with vitamins E and B could help sharpen older adults’ memory and brainpower.
A 2016 analysis of 21 studies showed that eating more fish or DHA is associated with a lowered risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Eye see you: Reducing the risk of macular degeneration
Folks who eat a lot of omega-3-packed fatty fish tend to have a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In other words, they’ve got great vision.
A 2016 review of studies indicated that fish consumption could help lower the risk of AMD.
6. More vision virtues
It’s clear that there’s a connection between omega-3s and healthy eyes.
There’s mixed evidence that EPA and DHA supplements could also help treat dry eye disease. Basically, we need more research to prove (or disprove) it.
7. Taming arthritis
Research is still limited on the link between omega-3s and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Studies do show that people with RA who consume fish oil and long-chain fatty acids need less pain medication. There’s also evidence that omega-3s improve swelling, pain, and stiffness.
8. Other ailments that might benefit from omega-3s
Scientists see lots 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 may improve cognition and attention.
- High fish consumption is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of depression.
- According to a review of four studies, omega-3 supplements may improve lung function in people with cystic fibrosis.
The National Institutes of Health recommend the following daily ALA intake based on how old you are and whether you were assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB).
Recommended daily amount of ALA
|👶 to 12 months*
|0.5 gram (g)
|14 years and older
*The recommendation for lil’ bebes is their total omega-3s. All other rows are just ALA.
What about EPA and DHA? A 2008 joint statement from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization recommends that adults who are not pregnant or lactating should consume at least 0.25 grams of EPA and DHA daily.
PSA for the mamas
Growing a human 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 a bit of EPA per day. These fats are critical for fetal development.
Breastfeeding? Shoot for 1.3 grams of AL and at least 0.3 total grams of EPA and DHA per day too.
You can totally get your daily fill from healthy foods, but some people also take omega-3 supplements.
The most natural way to boost your levels is filling your plate with yummy seafood, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens (including algae!).
Some food manufacturers also fortify their products with added omega-3s (#bless). Check the labels of these frequently fortified noms:
- soy drinks
What about supplements?
Sure! Omega-3 supplement pills are widely available and generally safe.
You’ve got several types to choose from:
- Fish oil. Made from fatty fish packed with EPA and DHA.
- Krill oil. Made from krill (duh), a small crustacean that EPA and DHA.
- Cod liver oil. Filled with EPA, DHA, and vitamins A and D.
- Algal oil. Vegetarians, this one’s for you! Made from algae, it packs in the DHA — and sometimes EPA.
- Flaxseed oil. Fills your ALA tank (also veggie!).
ALA is the most common omega-3 in the grocery store. You’ll find it in lots of plant foods like leafy greens, plant oils, seeds, and nuts. To maximize ALA’s health benefits, your body converts it into EPA and DHA. If it doesn’t get converted, it gets stored like any other fatty acid.
Feeling a little achy and sore? There’s an omega-3 for that.
Science says your body uses EPAs — found in seafood — to help fight inflammation.
Research suggests that EPA could also help soothe depression and anxiety, though that doesn’t mean fish oil pills can replace a legit antidepressant.
A 2011 meta-analysis of research on omega-3 supplements and depression shows that supplements with greater than 60 percent EPA were effective at treating depression, while lower concentrations of EPA were not.
Consuming EPA = eating algae or fatty fish. But remember, your body can also get a teensy bit of EPA from ALA.
EPA and DHA usually work hand in hand. Research indicates that they have several benefits when consumed together:
- decreased risk of Alzheimer’s
- a healthier heart
- less risk of heart attack
- weight management
- healthy fetal development
Again, you can convert small amounts of ALA to DHA, but you need to get it through diet too.
Let’s pull back the curtain: ALA is the most common omega-3, but it’s not actually useful on its own.
So, what’s a human body to do? Convert those bad boys! Your liver works hard to turn ALA into EPA and DHA, but it’s not a very efficient process — a conversion rate of about 5 to 8 percent.
tl;dr: Omega-3 conversion is a thing, but ingesting EPA and DHA through food and supplements is a much faster way to increase your levels.
There are at least eight other omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re all tongue-twisters. (Thank goodness 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-3s?
There are sooo many omega-3 rich foods. Here’s a sampling.
- canola, soybean, and flaxseed oils
- whole or ground flaxseed
- chia seeds
Catch extra DHA and EPA in these fish-tastic options…
Serious omega-3 deficiency — pretty rare in the United States — has been linked to scaly skin, arthritis, itchiness, and inflammation.
But a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean you’re all clear in the omega-3 department. Medical experts suggest that many American adults don’t consume enough DHA and EPA to live their healthiest lives.
One study noted that though the American Heart Association recommends 2 servings of seafood per week for adequate omega-3 intake, most Americans don’t eat that much fatty fish.
Omega-3 demands on mamas is even higher. But research shows that pregnant people do not eat enough fish and seafood to get the EPA and DHA they need for their own health and for fetal development.
tl;dr? Chances are, a little boost of omega-3 rich foods could help you get your levels into the healthy zone.
Side effects of taking omega-3 supplements tend to be mild. You could experience the following:
- a bad taste
- bad breath
- smelly sweat
- upset stomach
Always tell your doctor if you’re taking a supplement, especially if you’re also taking prescription medications. There’s always a possibility of interaction between your meds and supplements like fish oil.
For example, high doses of fish oil can interfere with clotting, which could be a big problem if you’re already taking an anticoagulant drug such as warfarin (Coumadin).
Omega-3s are an important nutrient for maintaining a healthy heart, lungs, and immune system. Your body can make some of the omega-3s, but you also need a good dietary supply of ALA, EPA, and DHA.
Research is mixed on how much omega-3 supplements impact health, but there’s good evidence that they improve heart health, lower inflammation, and help with ailments like rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration.
Remember to talk with your doctor before starting any new supplements.