The Skinny on Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are essential—but which one(s) should you take?

Omega-3 fatty acids are known as "essential" fats because your body cannot produce them: They must come from your diet. Experts think these fats may help prevent heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases associated with inflammation, and may also affect your mood and memory. Certain foods are excellent sources of omega-3s, but if you don't eat those foods, supplements are readily available and relatively affordable.

EPAs, DHA, and ALA

Fish oil, krill oil, algae, nuts, flax, soybean oil, and canola oil are all good sources of omega-3s, but the fatty acids take different forms. Oily fish provide omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Vegetable, or plant, sources of omega-3 fatty acids provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is partially converted by the body into EPA and DHA. All of these forms are beneficial to your health. The burning question researchers (and supplement manufacturers) want to answer is: which form is best?

Which Source Should You Seek?

If you don't eat animal products, then plant sources of ALA are obviously the way to go. When it comes to supplements, there is some evidence that omega-3 from krill may be more readily absorbed and used by your body than those from oily fish. But "more and faster" is not necessarily better, especially if you are consuming recommended amounts of omega-3s (7-11 grams a week) on a regular basis. If you take supplements to get your omega-3s, there appears to be no reason to pay top dollar for one form over another.

What makes sense is to get at least one serving of omega-3-rich foods every day, regardless of the source. If you eat oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, bluefish, or sardines two or three times a week, sometimes cook with canola or soybean oil, and routinely eat nuts, especially walnuts, and seeds (especially flax seeds), you are probably getting a beneficial amount of these essential fats.

So how can you get the recommended 7-11 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per week? You could eat:

  • 4-ounce serving of cooked fresh salmon or bluefish, which provides 1.7 grams of omega-3 fatty acids
  • 1 ounce of walnuts, which supplies 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids
  • 1 tablespoon of flax oil, which offers 6.9 grams, or almost a week's worth of omega-3 fatty acids

If you don't eat any of the foods that supply these oils on a regular basis, speak with your doctor to find out if supplements are right for you and if so, in what form and at what dose.




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Dewell A, et al. "Low-and High-Dose Plant and Marine (n-3) Fatty Acids Do Not Affect Plasma Inflammatory Markers in Adults with Metabolic Syndrome." The Journal of Nutrition. Web. 26 Oct 2011 doi:10.3945/jn.111.142240. Page accessed 22 June 2013.

Harvard School of Public Health. "Ask the Expert: Omega-3 Fatty Acids." Web. Page accessed 22 June 2013.

Tufts University School of Medicine. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids." Web. Page accessed 22 June 2013.