Omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits, but everydayhealth.com says they’re especially renowned for the role they play in heart health.
Seafood, walnuts, soy, flaxseed, and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids are believed to be some of the best “superfoods” for heart health. Often recommended for their anti-inflammatory and anti–blood clotting effects, omega-3 fatty acids also reduce the risk of heart disease and possibly stroke.
“Most people associate the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids with cardiovascular health,” says Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian and the founder of the nutrition consulting business Nutritioulicious. “Omega-3s have been shown to lower triglycerides and total cholesterol. But they’re also important for brain function, mood, memory, and joint mobility, and they’ve been found to help reduce inflammation from arthritis, improve eye health, and contribute to healthy hair, skin, and nails and a normally functioning immune system.”
Types of Omega-3s
There are three types of omega-3s: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While these fatty acids are critical for overall health, our bodies can’t produce them on their own, so we must get them from other sources, such as food or supplements.
The best sources of EPA and DHA are cold-water fish like salmon, rainbow trout, and sardines. “Albacore tuna is also a good source,” says Levinson, “but because it’s high in mercury, people should be cautious about how much they consume.” Other good sources include mackerel, herring, halibut, and shellfish. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming two servings per week of fish that are rich in omega-3s. “One serving is approximately 3.5 to 4 ounces of canned or cooked fish, or about 5 to 6 ounces of raw fish,” says Levinson. But be sure to avoid fried fish, as deep-frying is not a heart-healthy cooking method.
The third type of omega-3, ALA, comes from plant sources like canola oil, flaxseed, walnuts, leafy greens, seaweed, and soy products. “One thing to keep in mind with regard to plant-based sources of omega-3s is that our bodies need to convert ALA to EPA and DHA to get the health benefits of the fats. This means that you need to eat a lot more of the vegetarian omega-3 sources than the fish sources,” says Levinson. And when you eat more of these fats, you take in more calories, “especially when you’re talking about nuts and flaxseed,” says Levinson. If you’re vegetarian you may want to discuss your omega-3 intake with your doctor or a nutrition expert and get guidance on food servings and supplement options.
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Food vs. Supplement Sources
Consuming omega-3s from foods rather than supplements offers the advantage of the additional nutrients, including vitamins and minerals and, depending on the source, protein or fiber. “As with all nutrients, I recommend getting omega-3s from food first,” says Levinson. “But if you don’t eat fish or enough of the vegetarian sources, it may help to take a supplement.”
Additionally, the AHA suggests that because people with certain health conditions, like coronary artery disease or high triglycerides, may have difficulty getting enough omega-3s in their diet alone, they should talk to their doctors about supplement options.
If you are taking supplements, look for those that contain a combination of DHA and EPA, advises Levinson. The AHA reports that it’s safe to take up to 3 grams of fish oil per day. Experts recommend that most people should take from 900 to 2,000 mg/day if they are eating a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
There are many options on the market for omega-3 supplements, including:
- Fish oil
- Krill oil
- Flaxseed oil
Levinson suggests taking fish oil in capsules rather than in liquid form “because the capsules don’t have a fishy taste.” She adds that vegetarians and vegans may prefer algae or flaxseed oil supplements: “Both are good options — the best one is the one you will take on a regular basis!”
Because different supplements contain different amounts of omega-3s, your best bet is to talk to your doctor or a nutrition expert who can evaluate your diet and any health conditions and offer a professional recommendation for an omega-3 supplement that’s right for you.