Chances are you already know about the heart benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but they are also associated with lower rates of mental decline and neurological diseases — such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia — and even better skin health.
But a new study published in Current Developments in Nutrition has revealed that American adults lack adequate amounts of two of the three major omega-3 fatty acids — including DHA, which is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids for protecting the brain.
That’s why we spoke with Kelly King, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano, to learn more about omega-3 fatty acids and why they’re so important, easy ways to include them in your diet, and what to look for in a quality supplement if you decide to go that route.
What are Omega-3s and What Do They Do?
Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated or “healthy fats” that your body can only get from the consumption of food or supplements.
What makes omega-3s so important is that they help protect the cells in your body. They provide a starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation, which explains why they can be so beneficial for heart, vascular and neurological health.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapetaenoic Acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaeonic Acid (DHA)
ALA’s role is mostly in converting the food we eat into fuel that your body can use to keep everything functioning smoothly. ALA is found in many plant foods, seeds and seed oils, which means most Americans don’t have a hard time getting enough of it in their diet since many processed foods, common in Western diets, contain plant oils.
However, Americans have a harder time getting enough DHA and EPA. While the body is able to convert a small amount of ALA into DHA and EPA, the amount it can produce is not adequate enough to replace the benefit of consuming DHA and EPA-rich foods.
“According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, research suggests that consuming adequate amounts of DHA is needed for good brain health and may boost your memory as well as a slow decline in cognitive function,” King explains. “Having lower levels of DHA has been linked to having an increased risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. Therefore, it is important to have enough DHA now versus when you start noticing memory issues or cognitive decline.”
Sources of Omega-3s
As we mentioned earlier, ALA comes from plants, plant oils, nuts, and seeds. Some great resources can include:
- Flaxseed oil – 1 tablespoon contains 7.3 grams of ALA omega-3 fatty acids
- Chia seeds – 1 tablespoon contains 7 grams
- Flaxseed (ground) – 1 tablespoon contains 1.6 grams
- Black walnuts – ½ cup contains 1.7 grams
- Mixed nuts – ½ cup contains 1.3 grams
- Canola oil – 1 tablespoon contains 1.3 grams
- Soybean oil – 1 tablespoon contains .9 grams
- Hemp seeds – 1 tablespoon contains .9 grams
- Navy beans – ½ cup contains .6 grams
- Edamame – ½ cup contains .3 grams
- Kidney beans – ½ cup contains .1 gram
The recommended amount of ALA omega-3 fatty acids for healthy people are:
- Men (19 and older): 1.6 grams (or 1600 milligrams) daily
- Women (19 and older): 1.1 grams (or 1100 milligrams) daily
- Pregnant women (19-50 years): 1.4 grams (or 1400 milligrams daily
- Breastfeeding women (19-50 years): 1.3 grams (or 1300 milligrams) daily
While ALA can be found in plant foods, DHA and EPA are almost exclusively found in fish and seafood. King notes there is no recommended adequate intake for DHA and EPA, however, eating fish twice weekly is most likely to provide a healthy amount of both omega fatty acids.
Some great resources for DHA and EPA can include:
- Herring fish – 5 ounces contains 3.1 grams
- Fish oil – 1 tablespoon contains 2.9 grams
- Mackerel – 4 ounces contains 2.6 grams
- Salmon – 3 ounces contains 1.5 grams
- Rainbow trout – 5 ounces contains 1.4 grams
- Halibut – 3 ounces contains 1 gram
- Tuna (canned) – 3 ounces contains .7 grams
- Rockfish – 5 ounces contains .6 grams
- Shrimp – ½ cup contains .4 grams
- Catfish – 5 ounces contains .3 grams
Some foods beyond this list may also be fortified by manufacturers to include omega-3 fatty acids, such as some eggs, milk or soy beverages. King suggests checking the product label to see if a food has been fortified.
If you find yourself having a hard time eating enough omega-3-rich foods, or maybe you’re vegan and are having issues getting enough DHA and EPA, you can incorporate these essential fatty acids into your diet via supplements. However, King notes they’re not without their limitations and cautions.
“Supplements should be taken with caution because they are not regulated like prescription medications and therefore doses and quality can vary. There is also limited research that they provide similar benefits compared to food sources,” King explains. “Omega-3 supplements can also interact with some medications. For instance, if you are taking an anti-coagulant such as Warfarin, there could be a risk of increased bleeding when taking EPA and DHA. So if you’re thinking of supplementing your omega-3 intake, it’s always best to consult with your doctor first.”
If you get the “all-clear” from your physician, King says it can also be beneficial to ask them for any recommendations or dosages to follow. While most dosages stay well within what is considered a safe amount of omega-3 intake by the FDA (3 grams, or 3,000 mg,) King adds that consuming too much EPA or DHA may result in stomach upset or diarrhea.
And if you’re worried about any possible fishy aftertaste, King suggests looking for enteric-coated supplements, flavored fish oil, or algal oil (algae-based and vegan) to prevent any unwanted aftertastes.