Nutrition trends come and go. But omega-3s are a nutrient that got around – and for good reason.
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Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly known as omega-3 fatty acids, are a group of unsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for many functions. Since it’s best to get the nutrients you need from food instead of pills or supplements, it is important to include foods high in omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
But many Americans don’t eat enough of this healthy fat. Registered Nutritionist Anna Taylor, MS, RDN, LD explains the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and which foods are the best sources.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Every cell in your body needs omega-3 fatty acids, especially the eyes and brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for muscle activity, immune function, digestion and fertility.
However, most of the research on omega-3 fatty acids has looked at the health benefits of the heart. “People who consume omega-3s in their diets may have less plaque in their arteries, which lowers their risk of heart attacks and strokes,” says Taylor. “Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels and can easily raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels.”
Taylor adds that some research suggests that consuming more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish, has a lower risk of cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s still an area of continuous research, I thought.
There are other possible benefits as well. Some research shows that eating omega-3 fatty acids regularly can lower your risk:
- Some types of cancer.
- Age-related macular degeneration.
- Dry eye disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
“Eating foods high in omega-3s is a good move for most people,” explains Taylor. “But don’t expect them to treat all of your health problems. Work with a doctor to resolve health issues and talk to a nutritionist about the best diet for you. “
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If a food label lists omega-3 fatty acids, check what type it contains. Omega-3s are a group of different fats, not just one. And they are not all created equal when it comes to their benefits.
The three main types of omega-3 are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish. ALA is found in plant sources such as canola oil, flaxseed, soy, and walnuts.
“ALA is a precursor to the other types of omega-3,” explains Taylor. “A precursor means your body needs to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.” This conversion process varies from person to person and is not always efficient. To really increase your body’s omega-3 levels, get at least some EPA and DHA from your diet.
Supreme omega-3 foods
If you want to add more omega-3s to your diet, eat more fish. This gives you the greatest dose of EPA and DHA. Choose fish with the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, including:
- Wild salmon.
- Bluefin tuna.
- Lake trout.
- Albacore tuna.
- Whitefish lake (fresh water).
How Much Fish Should I Eat?
Most adults should eat at least two servings of fish a week. If you have a heart condition and don’t eat fish regularly, your doctor may recommend EPA and DHA supplements. However, fish oil supplements can interact with some medications. So ask your provider before taking them.
Fish and pregnant or breastfeeding women
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you can safely eat up to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week. Some of the best options are:
Avoid these types of high mercury fish that can be harmful to a fetus or nursing baby:
- King mackerel.
Vegetarian or vegan sources of omega-3
What if you don’t like fish, or are vegetarian or vegan? “You can get some of your omega-3s from plants, but most vegetarian sources of omega-3 only contain ALA,” says Taylor. And while ALA is healthy, it won’t increase your body’s omega-3 levels like DHA and EPA do.
How to Get More ALA and Vegetarian Omega-3:
- Add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your morning oatmeal or smoothie. The body doesn’t get nearly as much ALA from whole flaxseeds that are too small to chew properly.
- Eat 1 ounce of walnuts daily. Try adding them to salad or yogurt.
- Use canola oil with vinegar as a salad dressing.
Algae oil contains DHA, which makes it a good veggie omega-3 choice. Food manufacturers can add seaweed or seaweed oil to foods and beverages. Look for foods fortified with DHA when you are not eating fish.
Eat more fish, but talk to your doctor
Most people can safely add more fish to their diet to increase their omega-3 intake. However, speak to a doctor before making any major dietary changes or starting any dietary supplement.