You’ve probably heard over and over again that omega-3s are good for you, but have you ever wondered why? And also, which omega-3 is the best?
Keep scrolling to learn how many omega-3s you need to thrive, what types are important, and how to include them all in your daily diet.
The National Institutes of Health recommend the following daily intake of ALA based on your age and whether you were assigned a male (AMAB) or female (AFAB) birth.
Recommended daily amount of ALA
* The recommendation for Li’l Bebes is the total amount of omega-3 fatty acids. All other lines are just ALA.
What about EPA and DHA? A joint statement by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization recommends that adults who are not pregnant or breastfeeding consume at least 0.25 grams of EPA and DHA daily.
You can get all of your daily needs from healthy foods, but some people also take omega-3 supplements.
The most natural way to level up is to fill your plate with delicious seafood, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens (including seaweed!).
Some food manufacturers also enrich their products with additional omega-3 fatty acids (#bless). Check the labels of these frequently reinforced nouns:
- Soy drinks
What about nutritional supplements?
For sure! Omega-3 supplement pills are widely available and generally safe.
You have several types to choose from:
- Fish oil. Made from oily fish full of EPA and DHA.
- Krill oil. Made from krill (duh), a small crustacean that contains EPA and DHA.
- Cod liver oil. Filled with EPA, DHA and vitamins A and D.
- Algae oil. Vegetarian, this is for you! It’s made from algae and contains DHA – and sometimes EPA.
- Flaxseed oil. Fills your ALA tank (also vegetarian!).
ALA is the most common omega-3 in the supermarket. You can find it in many plant foods like leafy vegetables, vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts. To maximize the health benefits of ALA, your body converts it to EPA and DHA. If not converted, it will be stored like any other fatty acid.
Do you feel a little painful and sore? That’s what omega-3s are for.
Science says your body uses EPAs – found in seafood – to fight inflammation.
Research suggests that EPA might also help relieve depression and anxiety, though that doesn’t mean fish oil pills can replace a legitimate antidepressant.
A 2011 meta-analysis of omega-3 supplements and depression shows that supplements containing more than 60 percent EPA were effective in treating depression, while lower levels of EPA were not.
Consumption of EPA = consumption of seaweed or oily fish. But remember, your body can get a tiny bit of EPA from ALA too.
Say hello to DHA, the brain and eyesight booster!
EPA and DHA usually work hand in hand. Research shows that they have several benefits when consumed together:
- decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- a healthier heart
- less risk of heart attack
- Weight management
- healthy development of the fetus
Again, you can convert small amounts of ALA to DHA, but you must also get it from food.
Let’s pull the curtain back: ALA is the most abundant omega-3, but it’s not really useful on its own.
So what is a human body to do? Convert these bad guys! Your liver works hard to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but it’s not a very efficient process – a conversion rate of less than about 5 to 8 percent.
tl; dr: Omega-3 conversion is one 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-3s, and all of them are tongue twisters. (Thank god for abbreviations!)
- 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-3 fatty acids?
There are so many foods rich in omega-3s. Here is a sample.
For ALA …
- Canola, soy and flaxseed oils
- whole or ground flaxseed
- Chia seeds
Catch extra DHA and EPA in these fish-tastic options …
Severe omega-3 deficiency – quite rare in the US – has been linked to flaky skin, arthritis, itching, and inflammation.
But a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean you’re all right in the omega-3 department. Medical experts suggest that many American adults are not consuming enough DHA and EPA to lead healthier lives.
One study found that although the American Heart Association recommends 2 servings of seafood per week for adequate omega-3 intake, most Americans don’t eat as much oily fish.
The need for omega-3 in mums is even higher. However, research shows that pregnant people do not eat enough seafood to get the EPA and DHA they need for their own health and for the development of the fetus.
tl; dr? Chances are that a small boost from foods rich in omega-3s could help you get your levels in the healthy range.
Like any dietary fat, omega-3s provide energy – but they are useful in other ways too!
You’ve probably heard that omega-3s are good for your heart. But why?
Here are all of the ways it affects your heart health, according to a 2017 research abstract:
- It lowers the risk of healthy people having a heart attack or heart failure.
- It increases HDL levels (the good cholesterol, yay!), But * also * could raise your LDL (the bad cholesterol, boo!).
Omega-3 fatty acids for expectant mothers (pregnancy)
DHA in pregnant mothers helps develop babies’ retinas and brains. Even some baby foods sold in the supermarket are fortified with DHA so that the little munchkins can get what they need.
If you are pregnant or are hoping to become pregnant, consider increasing your EPA and DHA intake levels. Recent research shows that higher levels of omega-3s during pregnancy are linked to these benefits:
- lower risk of premature birth
- fewer low birth weight infants
- fewer infants who need intensive care
- lower infant mortality rate
- Lowering fasting blood sugar in mothers with gestational diabetes
- lower risk of postpartum depression
Unfortunately, there isn’t much scientific evidence to definitely link the omega-3 prenatal vitamins to a baby’s overall health, so eat more seafood to see results.
Researchers are eager to prove that omega-3 fatty acids can lower the risk of cancer, but the evidence is still patchy.
Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids could specifically lower your risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.
Increase in brain performance and support Alzheimer’s prevention
There is some evidence that taking DHA along with vitamins E and B may help improve memory and brain performance in older adults.
An analysis of 21 studies from 2016 showed that consuming more fish or DHA was linked to a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Eye you see: reducing the risk of macular degeneration
People who eat a lot of omega-3 packaged fatty fish tend to have a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In other words, they have a great vision.
A study of 2,275 people aged 65 and over found that people who ate fatty fish at least once a week had a 53 percent lower risk of AMD.
More visual virtues
It is clear that there is a link between omega-3 fatty acids and healthy eyes.
There is mixed evidence that EPA and DHA supplements could help treat dry eye as well. Basically, we need more research to prove (or disprove) it.
Research on the link between omega-3 fatty acids and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is still limited.
Studies show that people with RA who consume fish oil and long chain fatty acids need less pain medication. There is also evidence that omega-3 fatty acids improve swelling, pain, and stiffness.
Other ailments that could benefit from omega-3 fatty acids
Scientists see a lot 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 can improve cognition and alertness.
- High fish consumption is associated with a 17 percent lower risk of depression.
- According to a review of four studies, omega-3 supplements can improve lung function in people with cystic fibrosis.
The side effects of taking omega-3 supplements are usually mild. You could experience:
- a bad taste
- bad breath
- stinking sweat
- stomach pain
- a headache
Always let your doctor know if you are taking a dietary supplement, especially if you are also taking any prescription drugs. There is always the possibility of an interaction between your medications 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 like warfarin (Coumadin).
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important nutrient for maintaining a healthy heart, lungs, and immune system. Your body can make some of the omega-3 fatty acids, but you also need a good diet of ALA, EPA, and DHA.
Research on how omega-3 supplements affect health is mixed, but there is good evidence that they improve heart health, lower inflammation, and help with diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration.
Make sure to speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements.