Omega-3 fatty acids are one of those buzz-y nutrients you’ve probably heard of but are unsure of what they are and why you need them.
In a nutshell, omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, meaning your body needs them but can’t make them itself (the human body can make most other types of fats), according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
So, in order to get omega-3s, you have to consume them from food. But how much do you really need? And what are the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are actually a family of polyunsaturated fats including:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
EPA and DHA are found mostly in wild, cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, shrimp, flounder, and trout (among others), says Freshly’s head nutritionist Brooke Scheller, DCN, MS.
The reason: These fish feed on algae, which contain high levels of EPA and DHA (that’s why algae oil supplements have become a popular plant-based alternative to fish and fish oils). DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, making up 90 percent of the total omega content and 15-20 percent of the brain’s total lipid content.
ALA is found in plant-based omega-3 sources like chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, flaxseed, canola, and many other nuts and seeds. ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but it requires larger amounts to do so, notes Scheller.
What are the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3s help make hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation, according to Harvard.
They also help regulate genetic functioning. This is why omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help: prevent heart disease and stroke, control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and prevent cancer and other health conditions.
How do I know if I’m getting enough omega-3 fatty acids?
Research shows that consuming two, 4-ounce servings of seafood per week may reduce the risk of heart disease so aim to eat fish at least twice a week and regularly include omega-3-rich plant sources (like flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts) in your diet, recommends the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Just be sure not to go overboard: The FDA notes that consuming more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues.
Are omega-3 fatty acids the same as omega-6 fatty acids?
Nope. While omega-3s and omega-6s are both polyunsaturated fats that are essential to your health, omega-3s are generally thought to be more beneficial. The reason: Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory while omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, says Scheller.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils and ultra-processed food, and since processed food currently makes up over 60 percent of the standard American diet, many people are taking in too many.
So, how many omega-6 fatty acids should you be consuming? Your body needs a ratio of 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3. Since most Americans already consume plenty of omega-6s, the best way to improve your ratio is to get more omega-3s (bring on the cod cakes!).
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