Natural Nutrition: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
By Felicia Marzolf, Dietetics Student
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Benefits
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids – meaning they are necessary for human health, but the body cannot make them. The way to get omega-3s is through food or supplementation. Most people do not consume sufficient amounts of omega-3s. Symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings, depression and poor circulation. These fats are beneficial to our health and are needed in our diets. These fats play a vital role in brain function as well as normal growth and development. In addition, research shows that they reduce inflammation, and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Along with the benefits, omega-3s are highly concentrated in the brain and seem to influence cognitive and behavioral function. Infants need to get enough omega-3s during pregnancy or they can develop vision and nerve problems. Lastly, omega-3s normalize and regulate your cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that fish oil and krill oil are more effective than statins.
There are two different types of omega-3s. The first type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and come from plant and nut oils such as olive oil, canola, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin seed oil. ALA can also be found in some green vegetables like Brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach. The second type is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and is found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring. The difference between ALA and EPA/DHA is that ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA before it can be used by the body; but many people cannot convert it properly.
The adult recommendation for omega-3s is 0.5g of DHA/EPA per day or 0.5g of ALA per day. Here are some examples of serving sizes:
- 3 oz of fatty fish contains ~0.5-1.5 grams DHA+EPA
- Pacific Herring (Sardine) 1.6 grams
- Sablefish (Black Cod) 1.4 grams
- Spanish Mackerel 1.3 grams
- Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon 1.0 grams
- Farmed Rainbow Trout 0.8 grams
There can be safety and environmental concerns regarding the quality of fish. It is common that fish can be tainted and contain toxins. Try to avoid Atlantic and farmed salmon and trim visible fat. Light tuna is a better choice if it was not caught in the US or UK.
For 0.5 grams of ALA:
- 3 Tbsp Ground Flaxseed
- 10 grams flaxseed oil
- 1 oz of Chia seeds
- 5 Tbsp Hemp seed
- 1 cup walnuts
It is also important to note, adequate intake of antioxidants is critical to reduce free radical production. It is recommended to take 200-400IU of vitamin E once a week.
The best way to get omega-3s is through food. The food itself has other important nutrients and health benefits as well. If you do not like fish, there are supplements that can be taken as well. Fish oil is often used in omega-3 supplements. 1 gram of fish oil contains about 0.5 grams EPA/DHA. You can also find vegetarian supplements that contain ALA.
Omega-6 v Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential fatty acids that are beneficial for our diets. They too have many health benefits and can be found in foods like corn, soy, canola, and sunflower oil. While they are good for us, the typical American consumes high levels of omega-6 in their diet and low levels of omega-3. It is important to get the right ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 in order for both to work effectively in our bodies. The ideal ratio is 1:1, but the current ratio ranges around 20:1 to 50:1. The overconsumption of omega-6s is a problem and can cause serious health issues. The overconsumption can lead to the production of inflammation. Some scientists believe that the high imbalance of omega-6s and omega-3s is affecting heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some forms of cancer. The Mediterranean diet has been studied for its healthy balance of omega-3s and omega-6s. The diet emphasizes foods rich in omega-3s as well as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, garlic, and moderate consumption of wine.
Any Questions? Please contact Felicia Marzolf, Central Michigan University Dietetics Student at email@example.com, or her Supervising Nutrition and Dietetics Professor, Dr. Leslie Hildebrandt, PhD, RD, Hilde1LA@cmich.edu.