All You Need to Know About Omega-3s

The trendy term “fatty acids” may not feel very appetizing, but integrating these important nutrients into your diet helps with bodily tasks both big (heart and brain health) and small (the membranes around your cells). (1) Omega-3s, found in plant oils and fish, are essential fatty acids that your body can’t produce on its own — you’ve got to include them in your meals.

To bring you up to speed, here’s the full rundown on omega-3s, including how much you should consume, whether to add a supplement to your diet, and the health risks to keep in check.

Omega-3s: What They Are

Omega-3s are part of the family of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). They are essential fatty acids (EFA) that can be broken down into alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). (1)

“Omega-3s are named for the placement of the last double bond in the molecule, which is three positions from the omega tail,” explains Melissa Majumdar, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the nutrition coordinator for the Brigham and Women’s Center for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery in Boston.

ALA is the precursor to EPA and DHA, which means your body can convert very small amounts of ALA into the other two fatty acids, notes Sonya Angelone, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in San Francisco.


What Omega-3s Do And Why They’re Important

The laundry list of benefits these vital nutrients offer is long and varied. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory and anti-blood-clotting effects and may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. They’re vital for brain function, joint mobility, hormone production, genetic function, eye health and infant development (brain, immune, and nervous systems). Plus, these fatty acids may reduce the risk of dementia as well as ease symptoms related to rheumatoid arthritis. (1)

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“And they’ve been shown to improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and decrease your risk of certain types of cancer,” notes Torey Armul RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Columbus, Ohio. These nutrients are the building blocks for cells, helping the structure of cell membranes and cell receptors to function properly, adds Kristi King, RD, a dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

How Much Omega-3 Do You Need to Consume?

There is not an official daily recommended intake of omega-3s, except for ALA, which is based on age and gender (below). (1) “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not exceeding 3 grams (g) of the active EPA and DHA ingredients,” warns King.

  • Kids 1 to 3 years: 0.7 g
  • Kids 4 to 8 years: 0.9 g
  • Boys 9 to 13 years: 1.2 g
  • Girls 9 to 13 years: 1.0 g
  • Teen boys and girls 14 to 18 years: 1.1 to 1.6 g
  • Men: 1.6 g
  • Women: 1.1 g
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 1.3 to 1.4 g

“If you’re expectant mother, you’ll need more omega-3 fats because they play an important role in the growth and development of the fetal brain and neural tubes,” points out Armul.

But as with any nutrient, consuming too much, usually by way of a supplement, isn’t going to net you more health benefits. In fact, a study performed by Oregon State University, published in the November–December 2013 issue of the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids, found that taking large amounts of omega-3s may negatively affect a person’s immune system, leaving them unable to fight off bacterial infections. (2)

How to Integrate These Fats Into Your Diet With Foods Rich in Omega-3s

Try to eat a healthful, varied diet of foods that naturally contain omega-3s and those that have been fortified. These include fish and other seafood, especially cold-water, oily varieties, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines. Walnuts and chia and flax seeds, along with their oils and other plant oils (such as canola), are also good sources of omega-3s.

Many foods on the market have been fortified with omega-3s. Check the labels when you look for eggs, milk, yogurt, juice and beverages made from soy milk. (1) “Human breast milk and most infant formulas contain ALA, EPA, and DHA,” reports King.

Can You Have an Omega-3 Deficiency and What Are the Effects?

Becoming deficient in omega-3 fatty acids is relatively rare, but if you’re vegan or don’t eat seafood every week, then you may not be getting enough, notes Angelone. Deficiencies can occur, though, with some people reporting fatigue, inflammation, and depression, says King. One classic sign is rough, red, scaly skin with itching. But since there’s no reasonable way to measure the omegas in your body, try to eat more foods that are rich in these fatty acids or consider a supplement, she adds.

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The recommendation, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is to consume 8 to 12 ounces (oz) of seafood a week in order to obtain the necessary omega-3s. (3) The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests at least two servings of fish per week to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, reports Dr. Majumdar. (4) Fish oil capsules may contain krill or cod liver oil, though vegetarian options exist, too (algal oil comes from algae). Most people get enough ALA from the plant foods (nuts and seeds) they eat, per the National Institutes of Health. (1)

But pregnant women may be wary of these guidelines because of the risk of mercury that’s present in some fish. In this case, expectant women should still aim for at least 8 oz a week (but less than 12 oz) to aid in cognitive and vision development for their babies, Majumdar explains. And be sure to choose fish lower in mercury, such as wild salmon, herring, sardines, trout and Atlantic or Pacific mackerel (but not king mackerel, which is high in methyl mercury).


What to Know About Omega-3 and Fish Oil Supplements

Can’t stomach anything with gills? A supplement may be the solution, particularly if you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease or you’re planning to have a baby, counsels Majumdar. Getting omega-3s from whole foods is always the best choice, but for those who simply cannot meet the recommended intake of fish each week, a supplement can be a good alternative. “Most fish oil or omega-3 supplements contain EPA and DHA, which are from animal sources and tend to be more bioavailable [than the ALA from plant sources],” says King. Always speak with your doctor before taking a supplement, as it may not be appropriate in every case.

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The Safety of Omega-3 Supplements

The Institutes of Medicine hasn’t set an upper limit for omega-3 fatty acids since high doses haven’t shown adverse effects. “But it’s still possible to go overboard with these fats if you’re taking supplements,” notes Armul. Keep in mind the FDA’s recommendation of consuming less than 3 g a day, in total, with less than 2 g in supplement form.

Be cautious when considering any kind of supplement, as they’re not regulated and side effects can occur, including bad breath, gas, nausea, loose stools, and nose bleeds. Speak with your doctor before taking supplements, as the medication you’re currently on could cause an interaction. In particular, high levels of omega-3s may cause bleeding for those who also take warfarin and other anticoagulants. (1)

Upcoming Research on Potential Omega-3 Benefits

Although the majority of omega-3 research tends to be in the cardiovascular field, there are other areas in which fatty acid research has shown promising effects, including inflammation, colon cancer, and insulin resistance, reports King. “And it may help with ADHD symptoms, the reduction of depression and anxiety, eye health, and Alzheimer’s,” she adds.

Evidence related to cancer prevention isn’t clear, as it varies by cancer type, genetic factors, and gender, says Majumdar.

Research supporting omega-3s and depression showed mixed results: A meta-analysis of 26 studies published in March 2016 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found a 17 percent lower risk of depression with higher fish intake, while a review published in November 2015 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviewsfound insufficient evidence. (5,6)

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