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Here’s What You Need to Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids

By Sheela Prakash
July 22, 2021
Photo Credit: Jeff Wasserman

There’s lots of ink spilled on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats, found in certain fish, nuts, and seeds, have been linked to heart health and eye health, improved immunity, and weight management. Some studies suggest they may even help with anxiety and depression.

But what exactly are omega-3 fatty acids and what makes them different from the other omega fatty acids? We’ve put together this straightforward primer to walk you through what they are, why they’re good for us, and how to get them into our diets.

Ready? Let’s go!

What are omega-3s & what are their health benefits?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat found in certain foods, like fish and flaxseed, as well as fish oil supplements. To get even more granular, there are three main types of omega-3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). ALA is found in some nuts and seeds, while DHA and EPA are found in certain fish.

There are a lot of claims out there about the health benefits of omega-3s. Let’s tackle heart health first. Studies suggest omega-3s may lower the risk of heart disease. Fish oil, specifically, may help lower blood pressure and significantly reduce blood triglyceride levels; high levels can clog arteries and contribute to heart disease as well as stroke.

Omega-3s may also help with eye health, for example, preventing age-related macular degeneration. They’re helpful with inflammatory diseases (e.g., they can provide moderate pain relief for rheumatoid arthritis), and autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Preliminary studies also suggest they can help ward off certain cancers.

Interestingly, Omega-3s have been found to help some young people with ADHD to improve their focus and attention levels. While the jury’s still out, it’s believed these fatty acids might improve certain mood disorders

Side bar: Let’s talk about omega-6 fatty acids, another type of unsaturated fat. Our bodies need these, too, Doctors suggest getting a balance of both omega-3s and omega-6s in our diets, but how much is up for debate. While the science here is less than straight-forward, researchers agree balance is important — and most Americans eat more omega-6s. 

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Unfortunately our bodies don’t make omega-3s, so it’s important to get them in our diet. Fatty fish are an excellent source. Think salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. But you can also find these fatty acids in other foods as well.

Plant-based foods, such as walnuts, soybeans, flaxseeds, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, are good sources of ALA (a type of omega-3). And grass-fed milk, butter, and beef also contain some omega-3s from the grass the cattle eat. There are also a number of products fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, including eggs, orange juice, chicken, and peanut butter. 

How much omega-3 do you need?

As far as how much, there are no hard and fast rules. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adult males eat 1.6 grams of omega-3s a day, adult women 1.1 grams. The American Heart Association recommends those without a history of heart disease to have at least two servings of fatty fish a week, with a 3.5-ounce serving coming out to about 1.5 grams.

As always, if you’re concerned about your health and your fatty acids intake, talk to your doctor! 

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