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Nutrition

Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

All About Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Benefits, Sources & Beyond

If there is anything that can put the fear of fat to rest, it is omega-3 fatty acids. Learn how omega-3 benefits the body and just how to obtain it.

All About Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Benefits, Sources & Beyond


While the promotion of low-fat diets stormed the '80 and '90s, we now know that the most nutritious diets include plenty of healthy fats. Big emphasis on the healthy versions, because while various fats are anti-inflammatory, some are quite proinflammatory. 

Of all the fats, omega-3 fatty acids are widely regarded as the powerhouse of fats. (If not considered one of the top three most important nutrients in the diet!)

Discover everything you need to know about omega-3 fatty acids to eat your way to longevity and vitality!

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s are a class of essential fatty acids, meaning the body cannot produce them on its own and therefore must be obtained from the diet. Found mostly in fatty fish, a large percentage of the population has an omega-3 deficiency. This especially serves true for those who do not consume fish or other animal products (like vegans and vegetarians).

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are only found in animals and algae while alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is derived from plant foods.

DHA is considered the most important omega-3 fatty acid and is a prominent structural component of the brain, retinas, and other body parts. It is mostly found in fatty fish and animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy from grass-fed animals. Also important to note, conventionally caught fish and conventionally raised animals boast much less omega-3 fatty acids including DHA.

EPA exerts several functions within the body and part of it can be converted into the popular DHA. Like DHA, it is mostly found in fatty fish and animal products as well as in some healthy oils and microalgae.

Finally, ALA is actually the most common omega-3 acid that the body uses for energy. It can be converted into biologically active forms of DHA and EPA, but the process is very inefficient and only a small part ends up converting to their active forms. It is found in plant foods like flax, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and some varieties of mushrooms.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming two servings of fatty fish per week to maintain baseline heart and brain health. Depending on the serving size and specific type of fish, this equates to about 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams (mg) per week. 

For reference, effective doses to reduce poor lipid markers, decrease inflammation and protect against chronic disease risk are more like 4,000 mg per day! Considering all of this, it’s likely wise to aim for 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day of omega-3 fatty acids, through a combination of food and/or supplementation.

The highest, antiinflammatory omega-3 foods include:

• Wild-caught salmon
• Sardines
• Lake trout
• Albacore tuna
• Freshwater white fish
• Anchovies
• Halibut
• Seabass
• Oysters
• Shrimp
• Seaweed and algae (nori, spirulina, chlorella)
• Chia seeds
• Hemp seeds
• Flaxseed
• Walnuts
• Edamame
• Kidney beans

Is Omega-3 Good For You?

It's a resounding "YES!" Truly, omega-3 benefits are endless. 

While many people are familiar with their heart and brain-boosting abilities, less know about their other magical gifts.

Heart and Brain Health

Because omega-3 fatty acids make up part of the brain, they’re crucial for brain growth and development in infants. Obtaining enough omega-3s during pregnancy is associated with numerous benefits for the fetus, including: 

• Higher intelligence
• Better communication and social skills
• Fewer behavior problems
• Decreased risk of developmental delays, ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy

Furthermore, several studies associate higher omega-3 consumption with decreased risk of age-related mental decline and Alzheimer's. One study also showed that omega-3 supplementation can be beneficial during the onset of Alzheimer’s as well.

In addition, omega-3s improve risk factors for the leading causes of death - cardiovascular/heart disease and strokes. Omega-3 specifically achieves this related to its association with lowering triglyceride levels, blood pressure, inflammation, and bad cholesterol. The fat also helps raise good cholesterol and prevent plaque build-up and blood clots.

Eye Health

Just like DHA is a structural part of the brain, it’s also a component of the retinas of the eyes.

Sufficient omega-3 status is associated with a reduced risk of macular degeneration and other vision problems. This is important because macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of eye damage and blindness.

Depression and Anxiety

Both of these mental illnesses are two of the most common today.

Interestingly, numerous studies demonstrate that those who regularly consume enough omega-3s are less likely to be depressed and/or experience symptom improvement. Specifically, it appears that EPA is most effective for this endeavor, and one study determined it was as effective against depression as a common antidepressant drug. 

Notably, these acids are also associated with reducing the frequency of mood swings and relapses in those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Inflammation & Metabolic Syndrome

Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease systemic inflammation and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. This is because they can help improve insulin resistance.

In general, fats do not cause the secretion of insulin, which inherently improves insulin sensitivity. However, omega-3s capacity to reduce insulin resistance while also decreasing inflammatory pathways and mechanisms makes it supreme. 

Omega-3 acids specifically reduce the production of inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines along with other inflammatory molecules.

Autoimmunity

Autoimmune conditions essentially encourage the body to attack healthy, unharmful cells. While the mechanism is not fully understood yet, studies have shown obtaining enough omega-3s during the first year of life reduces the risk of various autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. 

Additionally, omega-3s are commonly used to help treat other autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and psoriasis. It may also help relieve joint pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis.

Cancer

Studies associate higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids with reduced risk of cancer in general. Specifically, though, studies suggest it greatly reduces the risk for colon, prostate, and breast cancer specifically. 

In fact, those who consume the highest amount of omega-3s have up to a 55% reduced risk of colon cancer!

Other Omega-3 Benefits

In addition, sufficient omega-3 fatty acid intake has also been linked to:

• Reducing instance and severity of ADHD in children
• Reducing asthma in children and young adults
• Reduce fat in the liver (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, NAFLD)
• Improve bone strength and reduce arthritis and osteoporosis
• Alleviate menstrual cramps
• Increase natural melatonin production and help with sleep
• Skin health - balancing hydration and oil production, preventing hyperkeratinization, reducing premature aging and acne

Omega-3 Supplementation

Eating fatty fish might not be so popular, but omega-3 supplements are certainly having their moment! Nowadays, many average Joe’s take some sort of omega-3 supplement related to their numerous touted benefits. 

Obtaining nutrients from whole foods first is always best. But for those who do not or cannot eat fish, a supplement is wise.

However, there are various forms of omega-3 supplements to know and consider. 

Omega-3

Supplements with this pure label typically mean that the source is unidentified. Meaning, the EPA and DHA could be derived from fish, a different animal, or algae among others. 

The dose can be anywhere from 300 mg to 4,000 mg, with ones in the 1,200 to 4,000 range being most effective.

Fish Oil Supplements

Probably the most common omega-3 supplement form, fish oil often offers the highest available dose of omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish, of course. These should contain both DHA and EPA.

Cod Liver Oil

In addition to omega-3 acids, this liver is also rich in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Combining omega-3 with vitamin D is so anti-inflammatory that most people can benefit from taking a combo of the two 

The cod liver oil helps improve the absorption of vitamin D, of which nearly 90% of the population is deficient.

Krill Oil

This is simply another type of seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Algae Oil

This is the best option for vegans and vegetarians since it is derived from sea veggies, not animals. They typically contain less concentrated forms of omega-3, though, so the dose needs to be increased, sometimes doubled. Some forms only contain DHA, but ones with DHA and EPA will be more effective.

When choosing an omega-3 supplement, look for reputable brands that provide transparent information about sourcing and third-party testing. Also look for the inclusions of other helpful nutrients like vitamin A, D, E, and K, antioxidants, or even turmeric. 

Thankfully, many brands have added natural flavoring to their capsules and tinctures to reduce the infamous "fish burps". It might seem fishy, but the few minutes of stench are well worth the health benefits!

The Takeaway

Omega-3 fatty acids are potent polyunsaturated fats that exert tremendous health benefits. Humans must obtain these fats from food and/or supplementation as they are not endogenously produced by the body. 

The most important DHA and EPA are only found in concentrated amounts in fatty fish like salmon and trout. However, edamame, mushrooms, and sea veggies also contain fair amounts. ALA is found in many plant foods and may also bolster health.

Truly, the power of omega-3 fatty acids is unparalleled. Research shows that they are vital for brain and heart health and are protective against many illnesses. Their anti-inflammatory properties reign them the top-tier fat source and it is abundantly important to obtain enough from diet and supplementation if needed. 

References:

Gunnars K. What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids? Explained in Simple Terms. Healthline. Written May 23, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-are-omega-3-fatty-acids

Hjalmarsdottir F. 17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Healthline. Written October 15, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3#TOC_TITLE_HDR_19.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Foods & Benefits. Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed January 1, 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17290-omega-3-fatty-acids.

Gal K. 15 Omega-3-Rich Foods: Fish and Vegetarian Sources. Medical News Today. Written January 20, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323144#_noHeaderPrefixedContent.

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on February 17, 2022. Updated on February 22, 2022.

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