Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Benefits and Food Sources

Updated on March 8, 2018
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Varsha is an enthusiast writer who loves to research on topics related to health and wellness.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the human body cannot manufacture and must acquire through diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the human body cannot manufacture and must acquire through diet. | Source

What Is Omega-3 Fat?

Omega-3 fat is a type of polyunsaturated fat known to benefit heart health. It is only found in foods and supplements and it cannot be made by the human body. Omega-3s are very important for blood circulation and blood pressure, and for helping to reduce inflammation. They have received attention as a healthy nutrient in recent years. Scientific studies show that omega-3 fats may benefit heart health. Recent studies also suggest that they are important for brain development and vision. Experts recommend omega-3 fats as part of a healthy diet.

Types of Omega-3 Fats

There are three main omega-3 fats found in foods:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA);
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA);
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

It is important to eat a balanced diet that includes omegas from a variety of foods to ensure that you get sources of ALA, EPA, and DHA.

  • ALA is an essential fatty acid. ALA is considered an “essential” fat because your body cannot produce it. Therefore, you must eat foods that contain ALA to ensure that your body gets the necessary amount that is needed for healthy growth and development. Studies have found that higher intakes of ALA may help to prevent heart disease.
  • EPA and DHA: EPA and DHA are not considered essential because they can be converted in the body from ALA. However, since only very small amounts of ALA are converted, experts recommend that EPA and DHA also be a part of a healthy diet. High intakes of trans fat may slow the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, so it is best to choose a diet that is high in omega-3 fats and low in trans fat. EPA plays a role in a number of compounds that help to protect heart health. DHA is important for the development and maintenance of cells in the brain, nerves, and eyes. EPA and DHA also appear to protect against blood clotting, inflammation and other factors that contribute to heart disease.

Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Health Benefits of Omega-3s include the following:

  • Lower triglycerides (fats in the blood) and possibly benefit heart health.
  • Improve blood circulation and varicose veins.
  • Reduce the inflammatory effects of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Lower blood pressure by helping blood vessels relax, which allows blood to flow more easily.
  • Potentially provide benefits to children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
  • Help to increase blood levels of the healthy cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein).

Salmon—a rich source of Omega-3
Salmon—a rich source of Omega-3 | Source

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acid

Since the body does not naturally produce omega-3 fatty acids, we have to get them through the foods we eat or by taking extracts or capsules (supplements). ALA is found naturally in some plant-based foods. EPA and DHA are found naturally in marine foods, particularly fatty fish. A number of food products enhanced with omegas, such as eggs, bread, and milk products, are also available. The following are naturally occurring sources of these fats:

  • ALA is found in canola, flax and soybean oils, and soft margarines made from these oils; ground flaxseed, soybean products (such as tofu) and walnuts.
  • DHA and EPA are found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and rainbow trout.

Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3 Fats

Click thumbnail to view full-size
WalnutsFlaxseeds
Walnuts
Walnuts | Source
Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds | Source

Recommended Dietary Allowance

The recommended Adequate Intakes of ALA for healthy adults are:

  • 1.1 grams a day for women; for pregnant women: 1.4 g, for lactating women: 1.3 g
  • 1.6 grams a day for men

There are no officially recommended Adequate Intakes for EPA and DHA, only for ALA. However, the guidelines do suggest that up to 10% of the recommended intake for ALA (as listed above) can come from sources of DHA and EPA. That means that 0.11 grams a day for women and 0.16 grams a day for men can come from EPA and/or DHA.

How to Increase Your Intake of Omega-3s

Simple steps to increase your intake of omegas:

  • Eat fish (such as salmon or rainbow trout) at least twice a week.
  • Choose omega-3 eggs.
  • Use a soft, non-hydrogenated margarine made from canola oil for spreading, cooking and baking.
  • Use cooking oils that are rich in ALA, such as canola and soy oil.
  • Lightly top your salads and steamed vegetables with flaxseed oil (do not cook with flaxseed oil).
  • Snack on a small handful of walnuts.
  • Choose whole grain bread that is enhanced with omega-3 fats.
  • Sprinkle ground flaxseeds or walnuts on yogurt or cereal. I have been using Vivanaturals Organic Flaxseed for quite some time. They promote healthy skin, hair and nails. Also, they are gluten-free so they are good for Vegans too. I usually sprinkle some on my breakfast cereal. Also, I add a tablespoon or two in my smoothies to make them more nutritious.
  • Omega-3 fat supplements may also be considered in consultation with your doctor.

Remember, even if a food contains omega-3 fat, you should still look at the overall fat content on the Nutrition Facts panel to determine if it is a heart-healthy choice. When following a heart-healthy diet, it is important to choose foods that are lower in saturated fat and trans fat. When choosing foods that contain omega-3 fat, ensure that they are also low in saturated and trans fat.

How to Incorporate Omega-3s Into Your Diet

(click column header to sort results)
Food  
How to Eat  
Fish or Seafood
• Grill, poach, or bake • Stir-fry with vegetables • Add to stews • Put in salads and pasta dishes
Walnuts
• Add to cereal or yogurt • Put in green salads, tuna or salmon salad • Mix with dried fruit for a snack
Ground Flaxseed
• Sprinkle on cereal or oatmeal • Add to muffin or pancake batter
Flaxseed Oil/ Walnut Oil
• Add to salads • Drizzle on steamed vegetables Do not cook with flax or walnut oil.
Canola Oil
• Use for all general cooking • Use in salad dressing

Interaction, Side Effects, and Overdose

High Blood Pressure

If you take medication for high blood pressure or anticoagulants to slow blood clotting, you should talk with your doctor before adding omega-3 to your diet or taking a supplement.

Side Effects

Omega-3 is safe for most people. Large amounts (greater than 3 grams per day) may cause nausea, diarrhea, burping, and heartburn. Taking omega-3 with meals lowers its side effects. Storing fish oil supplements in the refrigerator or freezer may help reduce the fishy taste.

Overdose

Very high doses of omega-3 might slow blood clotting and can increase the chance of bruising or bleeding. The mercury content found in some fish can be harmful if eaten in large amounts. Do not take fish oil if:

  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You are sensitive to aspirin
  • You have liver disease
  • You are allergic to fish
  • If you have surgery, stop taking fish oil capsules one week before your operation.

Store fish oil supplements away from heat, moisture, and direct light.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

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      • varsha bang profile imageAUTHOR

        Varsha 

        12 months ago from India

        Thanks Liz. Try eating walnuts and flaxseeds. They are good sources of omega-3. Also, you could add flaxseed oil to salads to get your daily dose.

      • Liztalton profile image

        Liztalton 

        12 months ago from Washington

        Great overview of omega 3s. If i could eat fish and crab everyday I would. Unfortunately I live in a desert. No fresh seafood around here

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