The Best Sources of Omega-3’s

best-sources-of-omega-3s

Omega-3s seem to be all over the place in the world of health-conscious people. They are known to benefit heart and brain health, help resolve inflammation, and even promote a healthy pregnancy. You will usually find them in stores as pure supplements, but they are also readily available in our diet.

Why are Omega-3s getting so much attention? Are there such things as “bad omega-3s”? Which foods are the highest sources of omega-3?

In this article, we give you the low-down on which foods are richest in Omega-3 fatty acids. First, however, we are going to review some of the basic information about Omega-3s, including what they are, where they come from, and how they benefit our health.

What are Omega-3s and Why Are They Important?

Omega-3s fatty acids (Omega-3s, for short) are a type of fat that is liquid at room temperature. These sorts of fats are called unsaturated fatty acids, and, more specifically, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

Omega-3s are usually called essential fatty acids, which means our body cannot easily make them. Instead, we must get them from the food we eat.

There are three main types of Omega-3s for human health: ALA, EPA, and DHA.

Out of the three Omega-3’s above, EPA and DHA are the most crucial, and the health benefits of Omega-3’s are attributed to the metabolism of EPA and DHA within the body. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found mostly in plant-based oils, while both EPA and DHA are found in most abundance in seafood and grass-fed meats (as discussed shortly).

Omega-3’s are critical because both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are used by the brain in consistent amounts, and thus we need a steady supply of it for normal neural function. Omega-3s are also important for cell structure, and they have key roles in keeping immune and hormone health.

The structures of EPA and DHA differ slightly; DHA has 22-carbon backbones and 6 double bonds at different positions, and EPA has a 20-carbon backbone and 5 double bonds and different positions.

Omega-3-structure

If you don’t have a strong biochemistry background, it is likely that the differing structures won’t mean much. As with all chemical structures, the structure of the component determines its function. EPA and DHA are metabolized by the body with high efficiency. ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in the body, but this process is slow and inefficient. Thus, the easiest way to obtain the health benefits of Omega-3’s is to consume foods that contain EPA and DHA.

Essentially, since we cannot produce Omega-3s in the body we if we want to increase the Omega-3s in our body, we need to consume more foods that contain Omega-3s, and specifically, foods that contain EPA and DHA.

What are the Health Benefits of Omega-3s?

There are three main benefits of Omega-3s for our health: they promote brain and neural health, they can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and they can reduce inflammation in the body. We will discuss each of them briefly below.

Brain Health and Cognition

Omega-3s are beneficial for brain development of the child during a woman’s pregnancy and lactation periods as well as for the maintenance of brain health throughout life.

In women who supplemented with Omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation, their children showed to have enhanced problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination when compared to children whose mothers did not supplement with Omega-3 (especially DHA and EPA).

In adults, some research shows that supplementation with Omega-3 slowed cognitive decline in people with mild cognitive dysfunction associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Heart Health

Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and circulatory blockages. Consuming more EPA and DHA is linked to a decrease in gene expressions that are involved in heart-damaging pathways.

Another study showed that EPA and supplementation decreased the risk of experiencing a heart attack and other cardiovascular risk factors.

Inflammation

Inflammation is the cause of many chronic diseases. EPA and DHA are thought to have important roles in in reducing oxidative stress that leads to inflammation, thus improving cellular function and gene expression. Inflammatory markers, like C-reactive protein, are linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that supplementation with EPA and DHA significantly reduced some types of C-reactive protein.

Additionally, Omega-3s are metabolized into components called resolvins. Resolvins, in addition to being powerful anti-inflammatory elements, also have free radical-scavenging properties that may help to suppress tumor growth and cancer.

Best Sources of Omega-3 in the Diet

1. Fish

Pros:

Certain types of fish have the most Omega-3s of any other food in our diets. Cold water fish, like salmon, albacore tuna, trout, sardines, and warm-water fish like snapper, are the highest in EPA an DHA. Here are the approximate amounts of EPA and DHA per 150g serving:

  • salmon (fresh Atlantic or Australian): more than 500 mg
  • canned sardines: 1,500 mg
  • trout (fresh rainbow): 300–400 mg
  • gemfish: more than 500 mg
  • canned tuna: 300–500 mg
  • rainbow trout: 300–400 mg
  • barramundi, snapper, John Dory: 200–300 mg

Additionally, fish is very low in saturated fat, making it a “lean meat”. The American Diabetes Association recommends that you choose lean meats over meats higher in saturated fat, like “red meats”. In fact, the ADA recommends everyone consume fish at least twice a week.

Cons:

Because of the size and life-span of many of the types of fish highest in Omega-3, they also tend to be high in mercury. This is especially risky for pregnant women, since high levels of mercury exposure can lead to miscarriages and low birth weight.

2. Krill

Pros:

Krill are very small organisms that resemble small shrimp, but are actually zooplankton. They eat phytoplankton. Because of their size, they don’t accumulate mercury like fish do. It is difficult to find krill as such to prepare in your food, but you can find krill oil in capsules.

About 30-65 percent of krill’s fatty acids are stored as phospholipids, whereas fish oil is stored as another type of fat called triglycerides. Our body may be able to absorb phospholipids more easily than triglycerides.

Cons:

According to the study cited above, we may need more krill oil to get the same effect as taking fish oil or consuming fish.

3. Other Seafood

Pros:

Omega-3s are also found in other non-fish seafood, but in lower quantities. Some of the seafood highest in Omega-3s include:

  • Squid: 200-500 mg
  • Lobster- 200-500 mg
  • Crab: 100-500 mg
  • Scallops: less than 200 mg
  • Shrimp: less than 200 mg

Cons:

The foods mentioned above have a lower density of Omega-3s when compared to their fishy counterparts.

4. Grass-Fed Beef

Pros:

When compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef is lower in overall fat content. This is beneficial for those looking to reduce saturated fat intake. Grass-fed beef is also higher in vitamin A.

Regarding Omega-3s, studies show that grass-fed cattle have an increase in Omega-3 fats and generally achieve a more favorable Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. However, cattle must be fed a pure grass diet to achieve these results.

Cons:

Studies show that, while omega-3 profiles in some grass-fed beef may be slightly higher, in general, people who consume grass-fed or grain-fed food have similar intakes of both Omega-3.

5. Chia and Flaxseed

Pros:

Chia and flaxseed and great options for vegetarians and vegans who aren’t getting Omega-3s from most of their foods in their diet. They are high in a type of Omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In general, ALA provides some of the anti-inflammatory and benefits for heart health. To some extent, our bodies can convert ALA to EPA (about 8%).

Cons:

While our bodies can convert some ALA to EPA through enzymatic reactions, our cells have a much harder time converting it into DHA (between 0-4%). DHA is the Omega-3 fatty acid to which we attribute most benefits for brain health.

It is important to note, however, that the cells of people who follow vegan diets are likely more efficient at converting ALA in DHA. Even so, there is no evidence that a lower intake of DHA in vegetarians or vegans results in adverse health or cognitive function, suggesting that their bodies may be more efficient at converting ALA into DHA.

6. Algae

Pros:

Seaweed and algae are good sources of DHA that are comparable to fish sources. In fact, DHA from algal oil is accumulated more in the body than DHA from fish oil.

Algae and seaweed could be good alternatives for vegetarians and vegans to get enough DHA in their diet.

Cons:

Scientists who research the marine food chain have found that algae and seaweed also contain mercury.

Summary of Omega-3 Content in Selected Food Groups

Here is an in-depth list of the ALA, EPA, and DHA content in selected foods (info provided by the USDA):

Omega-3-Content-In-Food

Supplement Sources for Omega-3

If you feel you aren’t eating enough omega-3 food sources, you can take high-quality supplements. Supplements are equally effective to increase Omega-3 content in the blood and provide all of the health benefits of dietary Omega-3.

Not all Omega 3 sources are the same.

Fish oil

Fish oil is the most common omega-3 supplement. It is a natural source of both DHA and EPA. However, unfiltered fish oil could have mercury.

Algae oil

Algae oil is a good alternative for vegans and non-vegans alike. It is one of the only natural sources of vegan DHA.

Krill oil

Krill oil has several benefits over fish oil. Krill does not contain mercury, it resists oxidation to make sure you get the full amount of Omega-3 found on the label it is environmentally sustainable. You may have to take more krill oil than fish oil to get the same results, but this is a small change that you can make for the benefits.

Conclusion

The most important element to notice in the Omega-3 supplement you choose is the source of the omega-3s the supplement contains. Make sure most of the omega-3 oils are from both DHA and EPA, as these are much harder to come by than ALA in our diet. Additionally, regardless of the source, check to see if you supplement is free of hexanes, dioxins (check the ingredient label), and are filtered for mercury.

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Image Credit: DHA and EPA structure by Tao Yi et al.

The Health Benefits of Omega-3’s

Health-benefits-omega-3

In the past 50 years or so, fat has gotten a pretty bad rap. People assume that fat causes heart disease, weight gain, and a host of other issues. However, this is simply not true. Fat is actually quite healthy, and among the healthiest of fats are Omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are incredibly important, and an essential component of a healthy diet. This article will discuss what exactly these important acids are, and why these are so important throughout the human body.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in a variety of different plant and animal-based foods that are essential for basic human health. There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

EPAs and DHAs are generally found in fish, and are oftentimes referred to as “marine” or “seafood’ omega-3’s. ALAs are found more broadly in a diet, including plant-based oils, nuts and seeds, in some leafy vegetables, and as well as in animals that have been grass fed.

Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important and Why Are They Essential?

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential because they can’t be made by the body, and the body needs these fatty acids for optimal functioning. Instead, the only way to get these incredibly important nutrients is directly through the diet.

Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Heart Health

In the past few decades, heart health has been a main topic of conversation between many patients and doctors, and for good reason. Heart disease, and many related conditions including high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes have been on the rise for the past few decades, and what diets are including- and missing- play a major role in these ailments.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for heart health. Studies and anecdotal evidence have for a long time suggested that those who have diets that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are at a lower risk of mortality from heart-related conditions, have lower blood pressure and heart rate, and have healthier blood vessels, even though these diets may be higher in fat overall than average. (1)

Healthy Skin

Most people love to spend time out in the sun, and there are definite benefits from getting some Vitamin D from enjoying a couple of rays. However, excess UV radiation can cause problems for the skin- ranging from wrinkles and sunspots to the much more extreme basal cell carcinoma, and at the worst, melanoma. Omega-3 fatty acids can help to fight inflammation caused by sun damage and may help prevent skin cancers from developing. There is also suggestions that omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce the localized inflammation caused by acne, leading to quicker healing time and decreased redness. (2)

Eye Health

Most people assume that Vitamin A and carrots are what’s necessary to keep eyes healthy. However, omega-3’s also play an important role. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent macular degeneration and dry eyes. They are what helps protect against a condition known as retinal angiogenesis, which occurs when new, excessive blood vessels form throughout the eye. (3)

Healthy Pregnancy

As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, and even when she is still trying to conceive, there are so many suggestions and guidelines about how to change her diet to best help her and her baby be as healthy as possible. There are many studies and research that suggests that omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for fetal development and the mother’s health. These fatty acids can help the mother conceive by increasing fertility, keep the baby growing healthy by increasing birth weight and decreasing premature births, and can lower the risk of delivery complications. Deficiency in omega-3 DHA’s during pregnancy have been shown to result in poorly developed neurons and synaptic connections. (4)

Healthy Menstrual Cycles

Pain, cramping, and bloating are among some of the symptoms that women experience during their monthly menstrual cycle. Studies have shown that increasing omega-3 fatty acids can help to decrease instances of menstrual pain. Additionally, one study has even suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can be better at reducing uterine inflammation and pain than ibuprofen. (5)

Brain Health and Mental Health

As we age, it becomes critical to take extra care to protect our brain health. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are quickly becoming prevalent in many of the elderly, and early onset cases are becoming more common. Those who are regularly consuming the recommended amount of Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a larger brain size than those who are deficient in this valuable fatty acid. A smaller brain size in adults is a determination of premature aging and memory loss. More importantly, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3’s can help prevent the onset of brain complications. (6)

While nothing can truly reverse memory loss, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can help to aid in the reversal of minor memory loss. Studies have also suggested that combining fish oil supplements or increasing omega-3 fatty acid consumption in other ways may help to lower incidences of mild depression and anxiety. Of course, it is always important to avoid self-medication without consulting a doctor first, particularly if an individual is taking prescription medications for depression or anxiety, as it is important not to cause a negative reactions with supplements and prescription medications.

Inflammation

Inflammation is responsible for some of the most common ailments that affect the human body, including high blood pressure, heart disease, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, diabetes, asthma and COPD, Rheumatoid Arthritis, as well as a host of other conditions. Recent studies also suggest that inflammation may play a role in the development of cancerous tumors by producing changes in the individual cell DNA.

Omega-3 Fatty acids play an important role in the reduction of inflammation throughout the body. Omega-3’s are metabolized in the body into potent anti-inflammatory molecules called resolvins and protectins. These molecules help reduce and eliminate inflammation by eliminating pro-inflammatory signaling molecules from chronic inflammation that result from 1) disease, 2) immune system dysregulation or dysfunction, 3) chronic stress, 4) allergens or microbes, and/or 5) injury. (7)

Sleep

Unless part of the 3% of people who are consistently able to function on less than 5 hours of sleep a night, most people need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to be able to feel fully rested and at their best. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to poor sleep patterns and can increase stress hormones, which in turn makes it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. Without enough sleep at night, you are more prone to disease, obesity, and chances are you won’t be very pleasant to be around. (8)

Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in some very specific foods. Fish, particularly fatty species such as salmon, tuna, and sardines, are perhaps some of the most common ways to consume omega-3 fatty acids and have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids per serving. You can also consume fish oil supplements that provide your daily needed amount of this fatty acid.

Additionally, grass-fed beef is another source of omega-3 fatty acids, and you may find that you prefer the taste of beef that is grass fed. Finally, there are also fortified foods, such as milk, eggs, and other foods, that contain omega-3 fatty acids when they normally would not (although we don’t recommend these; it is much better to get your omega-3’s from natural sources like wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef).

What About Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

Now that you are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, you may be curious about omega-6 fatty acids as well, as these two are often discussed together. While Omega-6s are important for certain cellular functions, they are much more common in the diets of Americans as they are present in a wider variety of foods compared to omega-3’s so the pressure to ensure that you are consuming enough in your diet is not as high. More importantly, omega-6’s are processed into pro-inflammatory molecules in the body. As a result, while necessary in small quantities for cellular health, these fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory and excess consumption should be avoided.

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