• Scott Sohn, MS, RDN, LD

The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What are they and are you getting enough in your diet?

The term fatty acid is the scientific term for fats. Fatty acids come from animal and vegetable fats and consist of chains of carbon atoms with a special tail at one end called a carboxylic acid. These chains have different degrees of saturation which refers to the number and location of hydrogen atoms on the chain. Saturated fat means that every carbon atom in the chain has hydrogen atoms attached and is therefore saturated. Unsaturated fatty acids are formed when hydrogen atoms are missing in certain spots on the chain causing double bonds to form. Omega-3 fatty acids are long chain poly-unsaturated fats of 18-22 carbons with the first double bond occurring at the third carbon. These unique configurations are what gives the fatty acids their special health promoting characteristics. Research has shown that eating too much saturated fat causes deposits to form in arteries (atherosclerosis) which is a type of heart disease. On the other hand, some unsaturated fatty acids have health benefits and may prevent those deposits and protect against heart disease. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are the two types of essential poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) we need from our diet. Most Omega-6 fatty acids in the diet come from vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, palm, sunflower, and rapeseed. Omega 3 fatty acids are found mainly in fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines with some coming from plant sources. Studies indicate that humans evolved consuming a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of approximately 1:1. Typical American diets now have a ratio closer to 15:1, containing excess omega 6 fatty acids from processed foods and less omega 3’s from seafood.1 That imbalance may cause health problems since excess omega-6 fatty acids are shown to promote inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and auto-immune disease. Omega-3 fatty acids on the other hand are associated with anti-inflammatory properties and cardiovascular protection.1

There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, the ones found in fish are called DHA and EPA. The type found in plant sources is called ALA which is partially converted to the vital DHA and EPA fatty acids within our bodies. Unfortunately, our bodies are not very efficient at converting the ALA from plants into the DHA and EPA we need. Fish products are still the best source to get those fatty acids that are so important for our health.

The amazing health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids have become well known among health professionals for their ability to fight disease and support health.

Omega-3’s can reduce inflammation in blood vessels, lower triglyceride levels, and may slow unwanted plaque buildup in arteries. Additionally, omega-3’s are thought to have a stabilizing effect on the heart and may prevent abnormal heart rhythm. The American Heart Association recommends 1 gram per day of EPA plus DHA for people with heart disease.Fewer heart attacksand fewer heart disease deaths have been associated with increased omega-3 consumption.2 It’s not surprising that populations who follow a Mediterranean style diet rich in healthy unsaturated fats found in seafood, olive oil, and nuts, have less heart disease and live longer.

Blood Thinning: Omega 3 fish oils decrease blood platelet activity resulting in slower blood clottingand thinner blood. This can help prevent plaque buildup in blood vessels and protect against heart disease.2

Arthritis: Some studies have shown that increased omega 3 consumption may reduce joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis and may boost the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs.2

Brain health: Brain cells rely on a steady supply of omega-3s to build cell walls and maintain healthy function. It is thought that omega 3s enhance brain health and memory while protecting against Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Omega 3s are also thought to possess antidepressant and neuroprotective properties and may boost the effectiveness of anti-depressants.2

Fetal development: Some studies have suggested that low DHA intakes during pregnancy may be linked to lower IQ scores. Whereas, higher intakes may promote brain development and are thought to have a positive effect on vision.2

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): Studies have shown that people with higherintakes of omega 3 fatty acids have a lower risk of developing AMD.2

How much fish should I eat?

The Institute of Health states that eating 8 ounces per week of a variety of seafood that provides about 250 milligrams per day of EPA and DHA is associated with fewer heart attack deaths.2 A serving size is about 3.5 ounces (99 grams), or about the size of a deck of cards. Darker fleshed fish such as herring, salmon, mackerel and bluefish generally have a higher omega 3 fat content than leaner fish species with lighter colored flesh such as cod, flounder, and pollock. Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant and young children should monitor the types of fish they eat due to the potential effects of toxins such as mercury. The FDA recommends pregnant woman consume 8 - 12 ounces per week of seafood with lower mercury content. They recommend pregnant woman not to eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish and limit white albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week.3

Check the estimated mercury levels in various fish at this website: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm115644.htm

If eating more seafood is not an option, try to include more nuts, seeds and beans into your diet.

Can I get all my omega 3s from plant sources?

The essential omega 3 ALA found in plant sources is converted to EPA and DHA within our bodies. As mentioned earlier this conversion is not very efficient and so it requires more ALA to provide enough to be converted into the important DHA and EPA. In comparison it takes about 5 times the milligrams of ALA from plants to equal the DHA and EPA content of seafood. The Institute of Medicine established guidelines for ALA for various age groups and pregnancy status. For men the recommendationis 1600 milligrams per day and for women it is 1100 milligrams. Lactating and Pregnant women are suggested to receive 1300 – 1400 milligrams per day.2

Adding a tablespoon of ground flax or chia seeds (2340 to 2530 mg) to your salad or smoothie may give you the boost you need. Also, add some nuts to your diet to give you some added omegas. ¼ cup of Walnuts provides 1500 mg of omega 3’s along with healthy fiber and vitamin E. Try adding some to your oatmeal, sprinkling on a green or grain salad, or making a trail mix with dried fruit and whole grain cereal.

Fish Oil Supplements:

If you still feel you’re not getting enough omega 3s you may benefit from a fish oil supplement. Fish oil supplements can be very effective for some people by decreasing unwanted fats in the bloodstream. Therapeutic doses of 2000-4000 milligrams per day have been shown to substantially lower triglyceride levels in some individuals.2 Supplementing with high doses of fish oil should only be done under the supervision of a health care provider as it may interfere with certain blood thinning medications. Commonly reported side effects of omega-3 supplements are usually mild. These include unpleasant taste, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, gastrointestinal discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and odoriferous sweat.2 When purchasing a supplement make sure it has been verified by a third party lab such as the National Science foundation (NSF) to ensure it meets Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) guidelines for potency and purity.

The many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are becoming more apparent as new research comes to light. Try adding some extra servings of omega-3 rich foods to your diet to support health.

1. Simopoulos AP. The Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 EFA’s. Biomed Pharmacother.2002 Oct; 56(8): 365-79

2. National Institute of Health. (2018). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/Factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Healthprofessionals

3. USDA. (2018). What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. Retrieved fromhttps://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm351781.htm