HomeNutritionOmega-3 Fatty Acids: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) that play an important role in human health. They support proper functioning of the brain, heart, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system.

A number of studies have also shown that omega-3s can help lower the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

ALA is a short chain omega-3 fatty acid and is considered essential fatty acid because our body can’t make it, so you must get it from the foods and beverages you eat. ALA is found in plant-based foods, including nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

The EPA and DHA are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and can be synthesized from ALA, but only a small percentage (less than 5%). Due to low conversion efficiency, it is recommended to consume foods rich in EPA and DHA.

The EPA and DHA are mostly found in seafood, particularly fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, herring) and algae. For this reason, they are often called marine omega-3s.

EPA and DHA work as a team to support the normal growth and development of the brain, eyes (retina) and nervous system. They also help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and normal triglyceride levels.

How Much Omega-3 Should You Consume Per Day?

The Adequate Intake (AI) for ALA is 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women. While there is no official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for EPA and DHA, most guidelines from various health associations agree that people need to consume about 250-500 mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day. This is equivalent to two-three servings of fatty fish per week.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that people should take no more than 3 g per day of DHA and EPA combined, including up to 2 g per day from dietary supplements.

However, higher amounts are often recommended for individuals with certain health conditions. The American Heart Association recommends that people with coronary heart disease should take at least 1,000 mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA daily, while those with high triglycerides may benefit from 2,000-4,000 mg daily.

If you don’t regularly consume fatty fish, you may take fish oil supplements that contain omega-3s to meet your recommended daily intake. Whether you’re taking the oil as a capsule or liquid, it’s best taken with a meal that contains fat, as fat increases the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids.

Be sure the supplement you choose contains EPA and DHA, as they are the most useful types of omega-3 fatty acids. Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking a supplement.

What Happens If You are Deficient in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Although rare, omega-3 deficiency can result in depression, poor memory, heart disease, joint pain, rough, scaly skin, brittle hair and nails.

Deficiencies in EPA and DHA may also result in decreased heart rate and hypertension, which have been associated with behavioral problems.

What Happens If You Take Too Much Omega-3?

The FDA notes that consuming more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day may cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms.

High doses of omega-3 may also lead to bleeding problems, especially if you take anticoagulants or other blood-thinning drugs.

Additionally, it could cause excessive bleeding during or after surgery. So, if you’re planning to undergo a procedure, you may need to stop taking omega-3 supplements for a week or two beforehand.

What Foods are High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Below are the top 10 foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.

RankFood nameTotal omega-3s (per 100 g)
1Flaxseed oil53.4 g of ALA [1]
22.8 g of ALA [2]
3Cod liver oil
17.9 g of EPA+DHA [3]
4Chia seeds
17.8 g of ALA [4]
5Walnuts9.08 g of ALA [5]
6Caviar6.54 g of EPA+DHA [6]
7Salmon2.15 g of EPA+DHA [7]
8Herring2 g of EPA+DHA [8]
9Tuna1.5 g of EPA+DHA [9]
10Sardines1.4 g of EPA+DHA [10]

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