Your Omega-3 Source Matters: Supplements Vs. Foods
It’s well known that too much fat in the diet isn’t healthy, but there is a particular fatty acid that is necessary: Omega-3. This is considered an essential fat because it isn’t made by the body and can only be obtained from food.
Read on to learn more about omega-3, including, sources, recommendations, and new research.
Sources of Omega-3
Many people don’t consume foods that contain adequate omega-3s, including fish, walnuts, chia and flax seeds, soy beans, omega-3 eggs, grass-fed meats, and dairy products (milk, cream, and butter), says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, CD, Clinical Supervisor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health. There are two types of omega-3 that we can get from diet, she adds: Sources found in plants called alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and the more active forms found in animals (like fish) called EPA and DHA.
A recent Journal of the American Medical Association study found that of 18 randomized clinical trials looking at fish oil use – the source of omega-3s that most people think of – only two demonstrated any positive health benefits. The beneficial sources specifically related to cardiovascular, neurocognitive, ophthalmic, and inflammatory disorders, while the remaining 16 studies didn’t demonstrate any benefit or proof of efficacy.
ALA (from plants) is the only source of omega-3 that actually has a recommended intake level, as established by the Institute of Medicine, out of the National Academy of Sciences, points out Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RD, RR-UCLA Medical Center, Senior Dietician, because we can convert ALA into the other forms of omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fatty acids in our bodies.
The Institute of Medicine has determined that an adequate omega-3 intake level is between 1.1 and 1.6g/day for adults. This can be obtained from soybean and soybean oil, nuts, walnuts, walnut oil, pumpkin seeds, flax, and canola oil, among others. Roughly 1-2 tablespoons of any of these can provide the recommended amount of ALA.
An international consortium of scientists that make up the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends at least 500 mg/day of a combination of EPA and DHA and 200 mg/day of DHA for pregnant women. This dose is also supported by the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A three-ounce serving of salmon has about 1200 mg EPA/DHA and sardines have about 750 mg, says Morrow.
Note that if anyone has a health condition like mental illness, inflammation, or cardiovascular disease, the doses may be higher, Morrow points out. In general, she says, the US Food and Drug Association generally recognizes a dose below three grams of EPA/DHA as safe. Once you exceed three grams EPA/DHA, some people might have issues with blood clotting and blood sugar control. If you go above this amount, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider or dietician.
If you’re wondering whether your diet has enough omega-3s, you can have the fatty acid ratios in your red blood cells measured. This can be ordered by a healthcare provider.
Many people rely on supplements to get their dose of omega-3, but is this sufficient? “More and more, scientists are discovering that supplements are not a good source of nutrients, whether vitamins, minerals, or omega-3s,” says Hunnes. “We are discovering that it is best to get the nutrient from the actual food itself. Supplemental omega-3 may not harm you, but it may not help you much either; particularly if it is from fish oil, which has been shown to not really be all that helpful.”
If you do rely on supplements, Morrow says it’s important to look for one that is high quality. She recommends referring to the International Fish Oil Standards Program (IFOS) to make sure the brand you choose is a good one. She says to also make sure the fish oil supplement is molecularly distilled, which is the gold standard processing method that produces the highest quality product. Additionally, she advises using fish oil over flax oil, because it’s already an active source of omega-3, and most research has been done on this form. If you are a vegetarian, many companies make plant based forms of EPA and DHA.
The American Heart Association recently found that patients taking a daily 4-gram dose of omega-3 from fish oil fared better after a heart attack than those taking a placebo. “However, to get 4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, you would need to consume roughly eight fish oil pills a day,” says Hunnes. “That doesn’t sound like fun!”
New research is always emerging when it comes to omega-3s, however. Some of the more compelling research has to do with mental health, according to Morrow. Studies show that optimal intake of omega-3s may prevent cognitive decline in aging and can also help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression to almost the same extent as medications, she says. This effect is magnified when physical activity is added.
It’s important to remember that taking fish oil for cardiovascular disease isn’t a magic bullet, says Morrow. “People need to do other things like eat a whole foods-based plant diet, reduce stress, and engage in physical activity to have a healthy heart,” she says.
Hunnes raises a potential concern with fish and fish oil when it comes to the environment. There is a lot of plastic debris in our oceans, which is eaten by fish. Toxic chemicals attached to the plastic end up in the fish, stored in their fat. So when we eat fatty fish, we may also inevitably be eating some of these toxins, she says. She wrote about this extensively in “Plastic: It’s What’s For Dinner.”
To ensure that you’re getting the best version of omega-3, try to eat three ounces of (fatty) fish (like salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines – though the smaller the fish, the fewer the toxins) at least twice a week in addition to consuming walnuts, soybeans, and grass-fed meat and dairy products. And if you supplement, choose quality brands.