Understanding Omega-3s: Fish Oil, Foods, And Healthy Fats

Many people know that omega-3 fatty acids are important, but new research shows that only 2 percent of people are getting the recommended daily amount.

October 24, 2017
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You’re walking through the grocery store, mentally preparing your meals for the week. You’re probably focused on making sure that you and your family are getting enough fruits, vegetables, and dairy. You might pick up whole-grain snacks for fiber and low-fat protein to fuel you throughout the day. There’s an important dietary component that might not be very prominent on your radar, however: omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s have a host of health benefits—and most people have heard of them before. But only about 2 percent of the population is getting the recommended amount of omega-3s in their diets. Our bodies can’t make these healthy fats, so we have to get all the omega-3s we need from the foods we eat.

Here’s why omega-3s are important to overall health, where you can find them, and why you definitely don’t want to bypass the fish counter next time you’re in the grocery store.

What are omega-3s?

When you hear the word “fat” you may think of foods that give you a little extra padding where you don’t want it. But the truth is that fats are an essential part of any healthy diet. Fats help keep your skin and hair healthy and they keep your body warm. Fats also help the body absorb vitamins D, E, A and K, since those vitamins dissolve in fat. Because fats have more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates, they provide great fuel for your body.

Of course, not all fats are created equal. Your body can create most of the fat you need to keep things running smoothly, but there are other types, called essential fats, that your body needs to function but cannot make on its own. To keep healthy you need to eat foods containing these essential fats, including omega-3s.

“There are a few things humans can’t make unless supplemented by diet. One of them is omega-3s,” says naturopathic physician Ralph Esposito.

Omega-3s are so important because they help the membranes of your cells stay healthy. In turn that helps with communication between cells, Esposito says. Within a cell, omega-3s connect with receptors that control genetic function, helping to keep your cells healthy, which in turn keeps your organ systems running as they should. Finally, your body uses omega-3s to make hormones that affect a variety of bodily functions, from blood clotting to inflammation.

What are the health benefits of omega-3s?

As you can see, omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in your body. By helping cells function more effectively, they keep all the systems within your body running at optimal performance. That results in some impressive health benefits for people who eat plenty of these fats.

The best-known benefits from omega-3 fatty acids relate to cardiovascular health. In 2003 the American Health Association released new recommendations about omega-3 intake, citing research that had shown that these fats can “significantly reduce” the risk of cardiovascular disease among people who were at risk. Additional research shows that omega-3s can reduce the likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease and also diminish the chances of having a non-fatal stroke. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women, it’s very important for women especially to get enough omega-3s in their diets.

That’s impressive, but it’s really just the beginning of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a diet rich in omega-3s can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol. The fats have also been shown to improve outcomes for people with diabetes and a host of other conditions.

Another area in which the health benefits of omega-3s are well established is around reducing inflammation. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that consuming omega-3s can have “significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs.” The study showed that people with arthritis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and migraine headaches could all benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s. These fats are so good for fighting inflammation because of what happens when the body breaks them down.

“Omega-3s can also be metabolized into byproducts called eicosanoids that have a strong anti-inflammatory impact,” Esposito explains.

Omega-3s aren’t just great for your body. They can also have a real impact on mental health, especially for people who are at risk for depression or bipolar disorder. A study published in the journal Drugs found that diets rich in omega-3s can help people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Another study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal found that omega-3s can help reduce and treat postpartum depression among breastfeeding mothers.

What are the different types of omega-3s?

Just like there are different types of fats, there are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, all of which have different health benefits and roles to play within the body. The three most common types of omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Esposito says.

All omega-3s are important, but EPA and DHA are especially critical. These are known as long-chain fatty acids and are found in marine sources like fish, shellfish, and algae. These omega-3 fatty acids are already in the form that your body needs to use them, meaning that it will use all of the omega-3s that you eat. Fish oil supplements, which are widely hailed for their health benefits, contain both EPA and DHA.

ALA, on the other hand, is a short-chain fatty acid. This omega-3 is most readily found in plant-based foods including flaxseed, nuts, and oils. ALA has fewer proven health benefits than the other types of omega-3s, but research shows that your body can convert ALA to EPA or DHA. A significant amount of energy is spent to convert ALA, though, so the amount of omega-3s that your body can use is less than the amount that you’re eating. For example, if you eat 7 grams of ALA, your body might only be able to use 10 to 15 percent of that once the fatty acid has been converted.

What’s the ideal amount of omega-3s?

It’s easy to count your servings of fruits and vegetables or keep track of how much protein you’re getting throughout the day. But keeping tabs on how many servings of omega-3s you’ve had can be difficult. It turns out that most people know that they’re supposed to be eating omega-3s, but few are actually consuming the ideal amount.

Regan Bailey, associate professor of nutrition science at Purdue University in Indiana and co-founder of the Global Nutrition and Health Alliance, recently studied consumers’ knowledge about—and perception of—omega-3s. The results were not what you might expect.

“The most interesting findings with the omega-3 study were that most adults knew what omega-3s were, they knew how important they were for health, they knew the appropriate food sources, but they simply weren’t getting enough,” Bailey says. “In fact, 98 percent of adults who were not using dietary supplements did not have optimal omega-3 index readings.”

So what is the right amount of omega-3s? The American Heart Association recommends everyone eat two servings of fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, trout, and sardines) each week. If you want to get a bit more technical, the National Institutes of Health recommends that adult women eat 1.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (for men, the recommendation jumps to 1.6 grams). To put that in context, a 3-ounce serving of salmon has between 1 and 2 grams of omega-3s.

What are lesser-known sources of omega-3s?

If you’re good at math, you’re probably realizing that you don’t eat enough fish every week to cover your body’s omega-3 needs. In fact, unless you’re eating fish every day, the majority of your omega-3 consumption is probably going to come from other sources. For people who don’t like fish, it can be even trickier.

“For those who do not like fish, getting adequate amounts of omega-3s in your diet can seem like a challenge,” says family physician William Newsome, MD. “While seafood does give you the most ‘bang for your buck,’ there are other ways to get sufficient nutrition from non-fish sources.”

It’s important to keep in mind that non-marine sources have ALA, which is the less ideal type of omega-3. However, getting ALA is better than nothing, and there are a few different options for incorporating it into your diet. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are among the richest sources of omega-3s. The healthy fats can also be found in canola oil and walnuts, which are a particularly tasty source.

“Walnuts contain over 2,000 milligrams of omega-3s per cup,” Newsome says. “Walnuts also provide magnesium and selenium, other nutrients many people are deficient in, which help contribute to brain health.”

How do you know if you’re getting enough omega-3s?

Now you know that to aim for: about a gram of omega-3 fatty acids each day. Outside of keeping careful track of your diet, there are ways to know whether your body is getting enough omega-3s. Brittle nails, dry skin, eczema, and hair loss can all be signs that you don’t have enough healthy fats in your diet, Esposito says. There are also blood tests that your doctor can order that can determine whether you have enough of this type of fat.

“The Omega-3 Index is a standardized, safe, non-invasive test that provides a measure of omega-3s in red blood cells,” says Bailey. You doctor should be able to interpret results to let you know if you’re at an optimal level, she says. “Current research shows that a target index level of 8 percent and above supports optimal heart health.”

As always, if you’re concerned about something having to do with your health, it’s best to reach out to your doctor for an individualized answer.

Should you take omega-3 supplements?

Because it can be tricky to get omega-3s in your diet, some people opt to take omega-3 supplements, usually in the form of fish oil.

“While getting omega-3s via food is ideal, few of us can manage to get the suggested 1,200 mg daily via food,” says Arielle Levitan, a doctor of internal medicine and co-founder of Vous Vitamin. “Therefore a supplement can be helpful.”

Many people dislike the fishy aftertaste that supplements can have. To avoid this, Levitan suggests putting your supplements in the freezer.

Not everyone is convinced that fish oil supplements are healthy, however. One study found that taking fish oil supplements was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in some men. The experts who spoke with HealthyWay agreed that it’s important to get a high-quality fish oil supplement, preferably one that has been recommended by your doctor.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to make sure your fish oil is pharmaceutical grade and third-party tested, which makes sure there are no heavy metals or contaminants in the oil,” says Esposito.

Some types of fish are likely to contain mercury, which can be harmful if it is ingested in large quantities. In addition, unregulated fish oil supplements might contain potential allergens such as shellfish. Finally, it is important to use a company that manufactures, ships, and stores its fish oil in a temperature-controlled area, Esposito says, reasoning that “You wouldn’t leave raw fish out on a hot day,” so you wouldn’t want your fish oil capsules sitting out either.

Last but not least, to get the most benefit from your supplement, make sure that it contains both EPA and DHA.

Whether you have been conscious of your omega-3 consumption in the past or are just recently becoming aware of these important nutrients, it’s important to take the time to make sure that your body is getting exactly what it needs from the foods you eat.

“We all have opportunities to change the way we eat to reduce our risk of chronic disease and improve our health,” Bailey says. “It’s not enough to understand the importance of essential nutrients like omega-3s—you have to take action to understand your levels and modify your behavior to support a healthy lifestyle.”

Finding ways to incorporate more omega-3s in your diet might take some work initially, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

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