Nutrition trends come and go. But omega-3s are a nutrient that got around – and for good reason.
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Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly known as omega-3 fatty acids, are a group of unsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for many functions. Since it is best to get the nutrients you need from foods rather than pills or supplements, it is important to include foods rich in omega-3s in your diet.
But many Americans don’t eat enough of this healthy fat. Registered Nutritionist Anna Taylor, MS, RDN, LD explains the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and which foods are the best sources.
Benefits of Omega-3s
Every cell in your body needs omega-3 fatty acids, especially the eyes and brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for muscle activity, immune function, digestion and fertility.
But most of the research on omega-3 fatty acids has explored their heart health benefits. “People who include omega-3s in their diets may have less plaque in their arteries, which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes,” says Taylor. “Omega-3s lower the triglyceride level and can slightly increase the” good “HDL cholesterol level.”
Taylor adds that some research suggests that consuming more omega-3s like fish puts a lower risk of cognitive function problems like Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s still an area of continuous research, thought.
There are other possible benefits as well. Some research shows that regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids increases the risk of:
- Some cancers.
- Age-related macular degeneration.
- Dry eye disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
“Eating foods high in omega-3s is a good step for most people,” explains Taylor. “But don’t expect them to address all of your health problems. Work with a doctor to manage health issues and talk to a nutritionist about the best diet for you. “
Types of omega-3s
If a food label lists omega-3 fatty acids, check what type it contains. Omega-3s are a group of different fats, not just one. And they’re not all the same when it comes to their benefits.
The three main types of omega-3s are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish. ALA is found in plant sources such as canola oil, flaxseed, soy, and walnuts.
“ALA is a precursor to the other types of omega-3,” explains Taylor. “A precursor means that your body has to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.” This conversion process varies from person to person and is not always efficient. To really boost your body’s omega-3 levels, get at least some EPA and DHA from your diet.
Foods with the highest omega-3 fatty acids
If you want to include more omega-3s in your diet, eat more fish. This will give you the largest dose of EPA and DHA. Choose fish with the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, including:
- Wild salmon.
- Bluefin tuna.
- Lake trout.
- Albacore tuna.
- Lake whitefish (fresh water).
How Much Fish Should I Eat?
Most adults should eat at least two servings of fish every week. If you have a heart condition and don’t eat fish regularly, your doctor may recommend EPA and DHA supplements. Fish oil supplements can interact with some medications, however, so check with your doctor before taking them.
Pisces and pregnant or breastfeeding women
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you can safely eat up to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week. Some of the best choices are:
Avoid these types of fish, which are high in mercury, which can be harmful to a fetus or nursing baby:
- Tile fish.
- King mackerel.
Vegetarian or vegan sources of omega-3
What if you don’t like fish, or are vegetarian or vegan? “You can get some of your omega-3s from plants, but most vegetarian sources of omega-3s contain only ALA,” says Taylor. And while ALA is healthy, it won’t increase your body’s omega-3 levels like DHA and EPA do.
How to Get More ALA and Vegetarian Omega-3:
- Add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your morning oatmeal or smoothie. The body doesn’t get nearly as much ALA from whole flaxseeds that are too small to chew properly.
- Eat 1 ounce of walnuts daily. Try adding them to salad or yogurt.
- Use canola oil with vinegar as a salad dressing.
Algae oil contains DHA, which makes it a good veggie omega-3 choice. Food manufacturers can add algae or algae oil to foods and beverages. Look for foods fortified with DHA when you are not eating fish.
Eat more fish but talk to your doctor
Most people can safely add more fish to their diet to increase their omega-3 intake. However, speak to a doctor before making any major dietary changes or taking any dietary supplements.