When you think of omega-3 fats you most likely think of fish oil supplements, a bottle of vitamins on a shelf at the grocery store, or a crisp, grilled salmon on a dinner plate. Others may think of heart health or the many other health benefits that these fats may contribute to.
Nutrition can often be confusing, especially with the massive amount of information available to the public that can be conflicting, and not always backed by scientific evidence. It is easy to get lost in the shuffle, but there are many research based answers that can help provide a clear understanding of what omega-3 fats are, the health benefits that surround them, and why they are so vital to our health.
What are Omega-3 fats?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of “essential” polyunsaturated fat that the body cannot make on its own and therefore must be obtained through food (3).
There are three main types of omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (1).
The difference between the three are found in their individual chemical makeup and the foods they are derived from (1). EPA and DHA, also known as the “marine” omega-3’s (3), are found only in fish, fish oils and krill oils(2), while ALA is found in plant oils like flax soybean, and vegetable oils (1).
ALA can technically be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, but this process is unreliable since it yields extremely small (less than 15%) amounts of converted fats (2). Those that are looking to increase their omega-3 intake should focus on incorporating more EPA and DHA rich foods, like fish, into their diet. A supplement should only be taken upon recommendation from a professional (8).
Why are Omega-3 fats so important?
Omega-3 fats can have a variety of benefits to a person’s overall health. Though a majority of research is still underway, it has been observed that omega-3 fats are vital to the membranes of every living cell in the body, especially in the retina, brain, and heart (4). This means that omega 3’s play a significant part in the function of the body’s cells.
What are the benefits of Omega-3 fats?
Omega-3’s have been shown to decrease inflammation, reduce risk of cardiovascular problems, and aid in growth and development (2).
- Cardiovascular health
- It may confuse some that omega-3 fats can promote heart health since fats are often believed to be bad for the heart, but unsaturated fats like omega-3s are actually considered to be good for the heart (7). Research has shown that those who consumed fish multiple times a week had a reduced risk of heart disease by 50% and heart attack by 33%. Omega-3s can keep the coronary artery from blockage and ensure blood flow to the heart, increase “good” cholesterol (HDL), lower triglyceride levels, and lower resting blood pressure (7).
- Inflammation is the bodily response to damage or disease. Prolonged inflammation can cause tissue damage and is the driving force behind many chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma (4). Omega-3s can reduce inflammation through oxidation, directly interfering with inflammatory molecules, or influencing molecules that take part in the inflammatory process (6). The effect of omega-3’s on inflammation can play a drastic role in the chronic diseases listed above.
- Growth and Development
- Omega-3’s, especially DHA, are extremely important in growth and development, which makes them vital to nursing mothers and infants. Studies are still being conducted, but it has been observed that a mother’s intake of omega-3’s influences her child’s cognitive abilities, visual and motor skills, and birth weight. The children of mothers who ate a small amount of fish per week were seen with larger birth weights and longer gestation periods (2).
- There is some push back concerning consumption of fish while pregnant because of possible mercury poisoning (3). While this is entirely up to the mother, research has shown that benefits are greater than the risks. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 suggest that pregnant or nursing women should consume 8-12 ounces of low mercury fish that are high in EPA and DHA (2).
How can I be sure I am getting an adequate amount of Omega-3’s?
Different people have different nutritional needs, therefore the recommended amount of omega-3’s can vary between individuals. For example, pregnant or lactating women, young children, and people with certain medical conditions may be advised to consume more omega-3 fats than the average person (1).
Those with an omega-3 deficiency may also be advised to up their intake (8), but this is not common since the average American gets a substantial amount of omega-3 fats from the typical western diet (1).
Since the body needs omega-3’s in order to survive, eating foods that are rich in omega 3 fats, like salmon, trout, tuna, walnuts, flaxseeds, and vegetable oils, can ensure that the body is getting a sufficient amount.
Edited by preRD intern, Lauren Gatto