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It seems that everyone from your cardiologist to your personal trainer is always saying that you should be getting more omega-3s in your diet. But what is an omega-3 fatty acid, exactly? And what makes it such an important nutrient for your health and wellbeing?
Read on for our ultimate guide to omega-3 fatty acids and how you can increase your intake to reap the rewards of this essential nutrient.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3s are a class of healthy dietary fats. They're essential nutrients that contribute to the structure of every cell in your body, and they perform a wide range of duties both inside of your cells and throughout entire body systems
Even though omega-3s are such an important part of maintaining your overall cell health, your body can't produce omega-3s on its own. This means Omega-3s are an "essential" nutrient. In other words, you need to eat foods and supplements rich in omega-3s to increase your omega-3 levels in your body.
Types of omega-3s
There are several different kinds of omega-3s out there. However, the three most relevant ones you should know about and look to include in your diet are DHA, EPA, and ALA.
DHA, which stands for docosahexaenoic acid, is essential for healthy brain function and development. In fact, over 90% of the omega-3s in your brain are DHA! It’s also widely found in your skin and eyes and is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, is another omega-3 fatty acid that is thought to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a type of omega-3 found in plant-based foods like nuts, seeds, and vegetables. When you ingest ALA, your body converts small amounts of it into DHA and EPA, where it can go on to be used for cell development and other bodily processes.
What is omega-3 good for?
Increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake has been linked to a wide range of potential health benefits throughout your body. In particular, the omega-3s DHA and EPA have been studied for their various beneficial roles in maintaining a healthy body.
Inflammation is your immune system’s way of keeping you healthy. When it detects a potentially harmful foreign pathogen, it launches an attack to destroy the “invader” before it can hurt your body. Unfortunately, some conditions can lead to chronic inflammation, which can cause your body to attack its own cells. This out-of-control immune response is thought to be responsible for various ailments like arthritis and joint pain. It's even linked to serious chronic conditions like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, etc. DHA and EPA are both considered to have anti-inflammatory compounds, which could help boost your immune system and keep chronic inflammation under control.*
Protect your heart health
Besides their abilities to reduce inflammatory responses in the body, DHA and EPA are also understood to support your heart health by playing roles in managing high blood pressure, lowering elevated triglyceride levels, and reducing blood clotting.*
Aid healthy brain development
Because DHA is such a huge structural component of your brain cells, getting enough of it is crucial for a healthy brain. It's necessary to get enough omega-3s if you are pregnant since you want to provide enough DHA to your developing baby for normal brain and neural development. Studies have also linked an increased omega-3 intake to other brain-related benefits like fighting depression, lowering the risk for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease and dementia.*
Strengthen your bones and muscles
Omega-3 fatty acids are used in your bone structure as well, and several studies have shown that they might help prevent bone decay and other bone diseases. DHA and EPA are also great nutrients to include in your diet if you work out often or want to preserve your muscle mass since they also play a role in your muscle proteins.*
How much omega-3 per day
The amount of omega-3s that you should include in your diet per day depends on various factors, including your age, sex, and current health conditions. As a general rule, the adequate intake (AI) for omega-3s in adults is:
- 1.6 grams/day for males
- 1.1 grams/day for females
However, the AI only skims the surface for the amount of omega-3s you need. You may need to increase your daily omega-3 intake depending on your current health and lifestyle factors. For example, it is recommended that you increase your omega-3 intake to 1.4 grams/day if you are pregnant and 1.3 grams/day if you are breastfeeding.
In addition, this general rule for adequate intakes also does not take into account the kinds of omega-3s you should be getting per day, which also matters since DHA and EPA are more active than ALA alone. Because ALA needs to be converted to DHA and EPA before your body can use it, it’s generally more favorable to get DHA and EPA directly. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting about 1 gram of combined EPA+DHA per day if you have coronary heart disease. Meanwhile, they also conclude that 1.5-3 grams of ALA "seems beneficial," but the evidence for it is not as strong as the evidence for EPA and DHA.
Not getting enough omega-3s can put you at risk for an omega-3 deficiency, which has been linked to symptoms like:
- Dry skin, hair, and nails
- Dry eyes and impaired eyesight
- Joint pain
- Brain fog
Over the long term, an insufficient amount of omega-3 in your diet could also put you at risk for developing inflammatory and chronic conditions, especially when you consider the rest of your diet. Besides omega-3 fatty acids, there are also omega-6 fatty acids found in foods like corn and vegetable oils, meat, and poultry. Having a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to heart issues and an increase in inflammation. On the other hand, increasing your omega-3 to omega-6 intake ratio has been found to be protective against inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, the modern Western diet generally tends to include much more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.
Insufficient omega-3 intake is an especially pertinent issue if you are pregnant or could become pregnant since DHA is an important nutrient for babies' healthy brain and eye development.
Where to get Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in a variety of foods and supplements.
DHA and EPA are most notably found in fatty, cold-water fish like tuna and mackerel. Because they are such a good source of these two omega-3s, cold-water fish are also used to make supplements like fish oil pills and cod liver oil pills. These supplements may be more convenient for some consumers than eating fish multiple times a week.
In addition to cold-water fish, you can also get small amounts of omega-3s from meats like beef and poultry. However, these are not very significant sources of omega-3s.
Unfortunately, animal-based sources for omega-3s like fish are not suitable for everyone. If you are a vegan, vegetarian, or have a fish allergy, fish oil pills may not be the right fit for your diet.
In addition, the fishing industry and the subsequent production of fish oil pills also present major environmental concerns. The increasing popularity of fish oil pills contributes to overfishing and damage to marine ecosystems, making it an unsustainable answer for increasing our omega-3 intake.
So if you are concerned about the environment and/or want to adhere to a plant-based diet, you’ll need to find a suitable vegan-friendly fish oil alternative.
Plant-based sources of omega-3
Most plant-based sources of omega-3s have ALA, not DHA or EPA. Some plant-based omega-3 sources of ALA include:
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseed oil
- Brussels sprouts
- Hemp seeds
Unfortunately, you may not be able to meet your omega-3 intake requirement from these sources alone. ALA must be converted to DHA and EPA first for your body to use it, but this conversion process is pretty inefficient. Most studies agree that the conversion of ALA to DHA is less than 5% in humans! This also means that many plant-based supplements like vegan flaxseed oil might not be the best fit for supplementation since they may not fully help you meet your needs.
A better option: omega-3 supplements made with algae oil.
Microalgae is a photosynthetic organism that produces the omega-3s DHA and EPA by converting energy from the sun into its own cellular energy. While other plant foods like seeds, greens, and oil have ALA, algae are the only plant-based source of EPA and DHA! The algae that cold-water fish eat is why those fish have so much EPA and DHA to begin with. So algae oil supplements are the best answer for increasing your DHA and EPA intake without fish, whether you are plant-based or you want to do your part for the planet.
Should you take an omega-3 supplement?
There are so many different health benefits that come with including enough omega-3s into your daily diet. Unfortunately, many Americans are not getting enough omega-3s in their diet to reap the benefits of this essential fatty acid. This is where taking a high-quality omega-3 supplement like algae oil pills can help.
You may benefit from taking an omega-3 supplement if you are:
- not eating enough oily fish every week (or if you want to reduce this habit to conserve the oceans)
- a plant-based eater following a vegan or vegetarian diet
- Pregnant or breastfeeding
- concerned about your heart and want to give your cardiovascular system a boost*
- looking for a natural way to reduce inflammation*
- eating a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids
Whatever your concerns are, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements like algae oil pills. Your doctor can help you determine your specific omega-3 needs, evaluate any potential interactions with other medications and supplements, and find the correct dosage.
omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that play a huge role in virtually every cell in your body. Getting enough of them is an important part of eating a healthy diet. While they can be found naturally in foods like fish, nuts, seeds, and greens, whole foods alone may not be enough for you to meet your omega-3 needs.