No type of fat has been getting more recent publicity than Omega-3s, you're very likely to have heard that they play an important role in support of our health.
What are Omega-3s?
The simplest Omega-3 is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. Like many vitamins, ALA is especially important in our diet because our bodies cannot make it. Either we consume it, or we don't have enough but fortunately many commonly eaten plant and animal foods contain ALA.
For other Omega-3s, this all-or-nothing scenario is not the case. Under the right circumstances, our bodies can usually take ALA and transform it into other Omega-3s but our ability to do so varies under certain circumstances. These other Omega-3s are more complicated than ALA. The best studied are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). There are many scientific studies which show clear health benefits provided by EPA and DHA that are not provided by ALA. These health benefits involve support of many body systems and decreased risk of many chronic diseases.
Health roles of Omega-3s
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
As much as 85% of dietary ALA is broken down to be used as an energy source. ALA is also the primary building block for EPA and DHA. Our immune, inflammatory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems simply cannot function correctly without sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Our inflammatory system depends on the presence of messaging molecules called prostaglandins, many of which are made directly from EPA. Most of the prostaglandins made from EPA tend to be anti-inflammatory in their effect. Therefore, your risk of excessive inflammation and inflammation-related disease can be lowered through consumption of foods rich in EPA.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is particularly important to brain function. DHA accounts for 9-12% of our brain's total weight! Nervous system deficiencies of DHA have been associated with a wide variety of problems, including neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's disease; cognitive problems including reasoning ability in children; and severity of multiple sclerosis.
Quality sources of Omega-3 fats
The foods below are ranked in terms of the nutrient density of Omega-3.
| Flaxseed || 15g || 75 calories || 3.20g omega-3 || Excellent Rating || |
| Walnuts || 85g || 195 calories || 2.70g omega-3 || Excellent Rating || |
| Sardines || 90g || 190 calories || 1.45g omega-3 || Very Good Rating || |
| Salmon || 115g || 160 calories || 1.30g omega-3 || Very Good Rating || |
| Beef || 115g || 175 calories || 1.10g omega-3 || Very Good Rating || |
| Brussel Sprouts || 340g || 60 calories || 0.27g omega-3 || Very Good Rating || |
| Cauliflower || 340g || 30 calories || 0.21g omega-3 || Very Good Rating || |
| Soybeans || 340g || 300 calories || 1.00g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Prawns || 115g || 135 calories || 0.34g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Brocolli || 340g || 55 calories || 0.19g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Cod || 115g || 100 calories || 0.19g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Spinach || 340g || 40 calories || 0.17g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Rasberries || 340g || 65 calories || 0.15g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
| Kale || 340g || 35 calories || 0.13g omega-3 || Good Rating || |
Guidance for vegetarians
If you choose to avoid all animal foods and seafoods, you should consider a discussion with your doctor to determine possible supplementation with Omega-3s.
Guidance for people who eat meat but no fish
Animals that have consumed healthy amounts of omega-3s in their diet will be the most likely to contain EPA and DHA. These animals (such as grass fed beef) will have been raised in a natural setting throughout their lives and pasture-fed on a variety of grasses and other plants.
Guidance for people who eat fish
2-3 servings of fish each week is a good target level for bringing fish-based EPA and DHA into your diet.
You should aim to consume at least 2.5g of Omega-3 fats per day
You should aim to consume 400-500mg of EPA+DHA per day
There is no known toxicity risk consistently associated with diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids. Like any fatty acids, Omega-3s are densely packed calorie sources, and too much dietary fat can be associated with weight gain. However, if you restrict your intake of high-fat foods to foods that are rich in Omega-3s, you're less likely to overdo it on the calories.
Health conditions which Omega-3 may help with
ALA forms of Omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Excessive blood clotting
- Fibrocystic breast disease (FBD)
- Hot flushes
EPA and DHA forms of Omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High cholesterol
- Excessive blood clotting
- Alzheimer's disease
- Cognitive decline
- Parkinson's disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Nervous system development
- Bipolar disorder
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.