The Importance of Omega-3 Fats

When it comes to getting our daily nutrients, we tend to think about things like getting enough protein and vitamin D, but we forget about others, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Key takeaways:

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that provide several health benefits and are responsible for many vital roles in the body, from the function of cell receptors to brain disorders and healthy heart function.

The fat breakdown of omega-3s

There are two main types of fatty acids: saturated and unsaturated. While saturated fat is a "bad" or "unhealthy" fat, unsaturated fat is a "good" or "healthy" fat, further breaking down into polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

While our body can produce most of the fats that it needs from sources from other fats, It’s important to note that we cannot produce omega-3s naturally. Therefore, you must get them through the foods you eat, or from a supplement.

Why you need omega-3 fatty acids

The most substantial evidence seen as an effect of omega-3 fats is in the area of heart disease and other heart-related conditions. Individuals who consume higher than average levels of fatty acids, rather than consuming less than average, can see a 30% reduction in developing atrial fibrillation, which usually leads to (potentially fatal) stroke or heart failure.

In addition to improving your cardiovascular health, adequate doses of omega-3s can:

The three main types of omega-3s

There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids that are discussed below.

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)

Alpha-linolenic acid is the most common type of omega-3, but only a minimal amount is converted to DHA and EPA (see below). The rest of it is stored in the body and used for energy as needed. ALA provides various positive benefits, including antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and good heart health. A systematic review of eleven studies (totaling 452 adult participants) found that those taking ALA significantly decreased the serum concentrations of triacylglycerol, total cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein. ALA is mainly found in plant foods.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

While ALA is the most common omega-3, DHA (and EPA) are the most important omega-3 fatty acids. Docosahexaenoic acid plays a significant role in brain development, maintenance, and cardiovascular health overall. Pregnant women, children, and often in some cases, infants, need to supplement with DHA as it is crucial during growth and proper brain development. Even as adults, it’s essential to maintain healthy DHA levels to maintain good brain health for memory and prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s. Deficiencies can also cause problems, including ADHD, aggressive hostility, and cystic fibrosis. DHA doesn’t just improve brain function, though. Epidemiological studies have shown that consuming 200 mg of DHA daily can reduce sudden death from myocardial infarction by 50%. DHA is primarily found in animal products.

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)

Eicosapentaenoic acid can be partially converted into DHA, making the two fatty acids work in correlation with each other to reap the many benefits, including lowering triglyceride levels, reducing inflammation, and reducing or preventing heart-related conditions. The REDUCE-IT study, published by Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy, found that, in comparison to a placebo group, there was a 25% decrease in the rate of having a heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular events in individuals who were treated with icosapent ethyl (IPE)-a pure form of EPA. Like DHA, EPA is also primarily found in animal products and algae.

Omega-3 sources

You can get omega-3 fats from both pant and animal sources.

Plant sources that contain omega-3s

Plant sourceOmega-3 fatty acids (g/tbsp)
Pumpkin Seeds 0.051
Olive Oil0.103
Soybean Oil1.231
Rapeseed Oil1.302
Walnut Oil1.414
Flax Seeds2.350
Flax Seed Oil7.249

Other good plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, edamame, and leafy greens, such as kale or spinach. While foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have amazing health benefits, some, like oils and nuts, can be high in calories. Therefore, they should be consumed in moderation.

Animal sources of omega-3s

Type of seafoodServing size (oz)Omega-3 fatty acids (mg/serving)
Catfish 5253
Cod (Atlantic)6.3284
Mackerel (Atlantic)3.11059
Mackerel (King)5.4618
Mahi Mahi5.6221
Salmon (wild)61774
Salmon (farmed)64504
Tuna (albacore)3733
Some sources of omega-3, such as swordfish and mackerel, carry higher doses of mercury than others. Therefore, women who are (or may become) pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid any fish high in mercury.

How much omega-3 should I take?

The American Heart Association recommends those without a history of heart disease eat at least two servings of fish per week. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, you may benefit from consuming a higher dose of omega-3 fatty acids, including taking a fish oil supplement. Before doing so, It’s crucial to talk to your provider about the proper dosage for you. If you have a bleeding condition or take antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications, it can increase the risk of bleeding.

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