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Intro to Omega 3 Fatty Acids


What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that offer a wide variety of health benefits. Since the body doesn’t produce Omega-3s on its own, they are classified as “essential fatty acids.”

Why are they good for us?
According to the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, research suggests that consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids, fish and fish oil reduces all-cause mortality and various cardiovascular disease outcomes such as sudden death and heart attack. Fish oils have also been shown to lower blood triglycerides, ensure normal heart rates and can lead to beneficial effects on blood pressure. Research suggests that Omega-3s can reduce joint tenderness and the need for drugs in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies also suggest that Omega-3s protect brain function with aging, including the progression of dementia, multiple sclerosis and neurological diseases (however, the strength of this evidence is inadequate to make any conclusions at this time).


What foods are they found?

The three main Omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is primarily found in plant foods (particularly canola oil, soybean oil and flax seed oil).  EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty fish (particularly salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna). Algae oils are vegetarian sources of DHA/EPA. Note that Omega-3s are NOT the same as fish liver oils. Fish liver oils contain Vitamin A and D as well as Omega-3s; however Vitamin A and D can be toxic in high doses.

Why is the distinction between ALA and EPA/DHA so important?

It’s important to note that ALA is only a building block or precursor to EPA/DHA, the biologically active forms of Omega-3s. The majority of the health benefits we hear about Omega-3s in the news are referring to EPA and DHA. Why does this matter? Because the body’s process of converting ALA to EPA/DHA is very inefficient. For example, every 1000 milligrams of ALA that you consume will only make about 27 milligrams of EPA/DHA. This is important for people taking Omega-3 supplements that are primarily made up of ALA or vegans who are consuming mostly plant based forms of Omega-3s.

How much EPA/DHA we need?

For healthy individuals, The World Health Organization recommends consuming 300-500 milligrams of EPA/DHA daily. This can be obtained by eating 2-3 servings of fish per week (6-ounces of cooked salmon provides 1800 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined). For those who don’t eat fish that frequently, consider Omega-3 supplements to obtain your daily recommended intake of this essential nutrient. Vegan EPA/DHA can be obtained by consuming algae-based supplements. V-pure, for example, is  a vegan based supplement  that contains both EPA and DHA. For those interested in consuming Omega-3s for therapeutic reasons,  The National Institute of Health provides a list of recommended doses studied in scientific research for different health concerns (scroll to bottom of link).

Are supplements safe?

A study that examined 10,000 subjects consuming Omega-3 supplements in various forms and doses ranging from .3 to 8 grams per day for 1 week to 7 years found that Omega-3 users experienced few side effects. Most of the reported issues were gastrointestinal (belching, indigestion, or diarrhea). WARNING: People taking blood thinners such as Warfarin/Coumadin should consult their doctor or Registered Dietitian before taking Omega-3s due to increased risk of bleeding.


What should I look for when purchasing supplements?

As mentioned previously, make sure your supplements provide at least 300 milligrams of EPA/DHA. Also, only buy fish oil supplements that have gone through molecular distillation to ensure they are pure and free of contaminants. A good quality fish oil supplement will usually cost around $20.00 for a month’s supply.

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2 Comments on Intro to Omega 3 Fatty Acids

  1. Avatar
    April 24, 2013 at 2:10 am (8 years ago)

    I know this is an old article but I’ve had an issue with ADD my entire life and I hated being on my meds because they would make me feel like crap so I looked for an alternative. I read on multiple websites that Omega 3 supplements almost cured the symptoms. I took some and it was the same effect as the meds without all the crappy side effects. I LOVE it…that combined with B12 makes my day feel so much better. So I don’t know about anyone else, But it REALLY works for me =)

    • Wendy
      May 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm (8 years ago)

      That’s so great!! Glad it worked out well for you


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