Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are three primary forms of omega-3 fatty acids:
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- ALA (alphalinolenic acid)
Seafood is the best source of EPA and DHA, which in turn have the greatest impact on our health. Many foods from plants contain ALA, however, our bodies are only able to convert a small amount of ALA into DHA and EPA. Since the human body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids, it’s necessary to include omega-3 rich foods in our diet. Omega-3 supplements have become one of the most commonly purchased supplements in the U.S. for this reason as well.
Omega 3s, Brain Function and Dementia
Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in a variety of neurological transmission pathways in our brain, and they also seem to help protect the brain during aging. As we age, both white and grey matter volumes decline, and plaque can build up that contributes to decreased memory and cognitive function. People who consume more omega-3 fatty acids have better cognitive function and a reduced risk for dementia, with some studies showing a 40-50% reduced risk. Supplementing your diet with omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ﬁsh oil shows inconsistent results, with some people experiencing improved brain function and others experiencing no change.
Omega 3s and Cardiovascular Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in protecting against peripheral artery disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis, and stroke. EPA and DHA help reduce inﬂammation (a key cause of cardio-vascular disease), decrease risk of abnormal heartbeat (which can lead to a heart attack), and improve the function of the blood vessels to reduce plaque, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of stroke.
How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acid Do We Need?
National and international health organizations recommend that we consume an average of 250 to 500 mg of EPA + DHA daily, yet adults in the US consume only about 90 mg per day, a far cry from the amounts recommended to support healthy hearts, eyes, and brains.
The American Heart Association tells us to eat fatty fish at least twice a week to ensure the needed average daily intake of EPA and DHA. No other food naturally provides a hefty dose of these health-boosting fatty acids.
Consuming enough EPA and DHA can decrease your risk of having dangerous, abnormal heartbeats; lower your blood triglyceride levels; and slow the formation of plaque in your blood vessels.
Benefits for Baby
Because DHA in particular is critical for the development of a baby’s eyes and brain, experts recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women consume low-mercury fatty fish twice weekly.
Great Sources of Omega 3s
You’ve probably heard that fatty fish is one of the best sources to add omega-3 foods to your diet. And they are. Fatty fish offer even more than critical omega-3 fatty acids. The healthful fats contained in fatty fish are delivered along with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Great choices for omega-3-rich fatty fish are salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and herring.
Pregnant Women Beware
The Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant and breastfeeding women, women who may become pregnant, and children to eat light tuna more often than white albacore tuna because light tuna contains less mercury. But not everyone is willing or able to eat fish regularly, so fortified foods and supplements can fill the gap.
You will find a variety of foods with added omega-3 fatty acids. If you are not a regular fish eater, seek out those foods fortified specifically with EPA or DHA. Fortified milk, eggs, yogurt, and orange juice, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds are just a few items on the supermarket shelves that fill the bill.
If you aren’t able to add omega-3 foods to your diet through food, supplements can be a convenient way to still get their benefits. It’s smart to check in with your healthcare provider before starting new supplements. When choosing a fish oil supplement in a sea of options, look for the total amount of EPA + DHA, not the total amount of fish oil, which will be higher.
Be sure to look at the serving size too. For example, a bottle may show that a single softgel contains 1,000 mg of fish oil, but with careful review, you may notice that is has only 500 mg of EPA + DHA for 2 softgels or 250 mg per softgel. Vegan supplement users can find some algal options.