When you see omega 3 fatty acids listed on a food label (and it’s not fish), it is likely the less beneficial ALA form of omega 3. Unless the label says “EPA” and/or “DHA,” or it says fish oil or algae oil in the ingredients list, the product most likely contains only ALA (Alpha linolenic acid)–especially if the product contains flax, soybean oil or canola oil.
That’s fine, but you should know that not all omega 3 fatty acids are created equal. Our bodies must convert ALA to the more potent DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) or EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) forms of omega 3 fatty acids, like those found in fish. The problem is that our bodies are inefficient at converting ALA to DHA or EPA, with approximately less than 10% being converted. So if you consume a product with ALA omega 3, you’re not getting as much of the beneficial omega 3 fatty acids as you thought.
Just what exactly are omega 3 fatty acids? And what are the health benefits and sources of them? Here are some basic facts you should know:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Basic Facts
- Omega 3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids because our bodies need them to function properly. However, our bodies cannot produce ALA, DHA, or EPA, and our bodies are inefficient at converting ALA to the more readily utilized EPA and DHA forms of essential fatty acids. Therefore, we need to get them from the foods we eat and from supplements.
- There are several types of omega 3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones—EPA and DHA—are primarily found in fatty fish. Plants like flax contain ALA, an omega 3 fatty acid that is partially converted into DHA and EPA in the body.
- Experts say that DHA and EPA from fish and fish oil have better established health benefits than ALA. DHA and EPA are found together only in fatty fish and algae. DHA can also be found on its own in algae, while flaxseed and plant sources of omega 3s contain only ALA.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Benefits
- Blood fat (triglycerides): Research has found that DHA and EPA supplementation helps reduce serum triglycerides/triacylglycerols1. Having high levels of blood fat is a risk factor for heart problems.
- Cardiovascular health: Omega 3 supplements with DHA and EPA help maintain and support cardiovascular health 2
- Rheumatoid arthritis: In conjunction with conventional therapy, research has found that supplements with EPA and DHA help reduce pain of rheumatoid arthritis in adults. 3
- Healthy mood balance: Researchers have found that supplements with EPA and DHA help to promote healthy mood balance 4
- Prenatal and child health: Research shows that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy boosts the health of pregnant women and the development of their babies. It helps support the development of the brain, eyes and nerves in children up to 12 years of age. 5
Omega 3s and Omega 6s
You may have heard about the importance of consuming a healthy balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in your diet. Omega 6s are found in many oils, meats, and processed foods. Many experts believe that most people in the U.S. are eating far too many omega 6s and far too few omega 3 fatty acids. They argue that this imbalance may be causing many chronic health problems. However, other experts disagree and argue that the health benefits of omega 6s are being ignored.
More studies are needed, but the bottom line is that increasing your intake of omega 3 fatty acids will be beneficial to your health.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Food Sources
- Fatty fish: Fish high in DHA and EPA omega 3 fatty acids include anchovies, bluefish, herring, salmon (wild has more omega 3s than farmed), sardines, sturgeon, lake trout, and tuna. Many experts recommend eating these fish two times per week. Warning: Some fish, such as wild swordfish, tilefish, and shark, are more likely to have higher levels of Mercury, PCBs, or other toxins. Farmed fish of any type may also have higher levels of contaminants. Children and pregnant women should avoid eating these fish entirely. Everyone else should eat no more than 7 ounces of these fish per week. Smaller fish like wild trout and wild salmon are the safest.
- Plant sources: ALA is found in plant sources like walnuts, flax and flaxseed oil, canola oil, olive oil, soybean oil, and green leafy vegetables like spinach.
- Free-range poultry & beef: Consider eating more free-range poultry and beef. Free-range animals typically have much higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids than grain-fed animals.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Supplements
- Consider taking a fish oil supplement. Fish oil contains both EPA and DHA, the most beneficial forms of omega 3 fatty acids. Try Healthy Choice Naturals Omega Naturals Fish Oil 1000, an extra-strength, purified fish oil supplement which yields 420mg of EPA and 280mg of DHA per capsule, so you get 230% more of the beneficial DHA and EPA compared to other brands. It is harvested from the purest wild sardine, anchovy, and mackerel fish populations from the cold, pristine waters of the Nordic Sea where there are significantly less environmental impurities.