By Dayna Winter, M.S., R.D.
Omega-3 fatty acids continue to make big news in the world of health and nutrition—and it turns out their stellar reputation is well deserved. For instance, select population studies and clinical trials have shown that omega-3s support a healthy heart. Some studies have also shown that omega-3s play a positive role in inflammation, support healthy triglyceride levels and have other positive health benefits.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaeonic acid (EPA) and docosahexaeonic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are commonly referred to as “fish oils” because these are the main omega-3s in fish.
Health experts have yet to come up with an official recommendation for EPA and DHA, but about 500 mg daily is a good number to aim for. The current recommendation for ALA is 1.1 g daily for women and 1.6 g for men. ALA is found in vegetable oils, like soybean, canola and flaxseed; it is also found in walnuts, flax and pumpkin seeds, purslane and eggs, especially those hatched from chickens fed a diet high in omega-3s.
Most Americans have no problem getting enough daily ALA. (Just 2 tablespoons of walnuts have about 1.1 g, and 1 tablespoon of canola oil has 1.3 g.) It’s the omega-3s EPA and DHA that many should be concerned with, according to Richard Deckelbaum, M.D., director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. He says current intake of EPA and DHA in the U.S. is one-third to one-sixth of what it should be. The most abundant food source of EPA and DHA are fish, especially fatty types, such as salmon, sardines, halibut and herring. If you eat fatty fish twice a week, and include walnuts, canola oil, and/or flaxseed on a regular basis, you should cover your omega-3 needs.
Not a fish eater? Many foods are now enriched with omega-3s, including EPA and DHA. Or you can take a daily one-gram omega-3 supplement (consult your doctor first). Here’s what to look for:
- Buy a product that is molecularly distilled to ensure it is free of impurities, such as PCBs, dioxins or mercury.
- Look for the words “pharmaceutical grade” on the label to further insure purity.
- Check for algae-derived EPA and DHA if you are a vegetarian. (The label will tell you whether the EPA and DHA are fish or algae-derived.)
- Choose a supplement that provides a 1:1 ratio of EPA to DHA, or one with slightly higher levels of EPA than DHA.
Take note that too much EPA or DHA can adversely affect your immune system and may not be safe for people who take blood thinners. Consult a health professional before deciding on a supplement.
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