However, most of the people don’t know that Omega-3s are not just a single nutrient. The term refers to a family of compounds that has a wide chemical variety. With each type of Omega-3 playing a different role.
The sources for each Omega-3s are different and sometime fish oil supplementation may not be enough.
Let’s discover some more about this.
The different kinds of Omega-3s
Let’s start from the beginning. Omega-3s are not a single nutrient. Such term identifies a family of compounds with chemical variety. Studies have determined that each type of Omega-3s plays a different role and their benefits depends on a person’s life stage and specific medical conditions.
Specifically, Omega-3s are long chains of carbon atoms that bond to each other in different ways to produce molecules with various functions.
As humans we consume five different forms of Omega-3s. Of these five, three matter most to our health:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Of those three, ALA is the only form that is specified in the United States' official guidelines with a dietary reference intake. According to the Institute of Medicine, men should consume 1.6 grams of the fatty acid a day. Women should get 1.1 grams.
When it comes instead to DHA and EPA, lacking any official guideline, the consensus among nutritionists seems to be around 0.4 grams for the former and 0.5 grams for the latter. However, most provide only for a range: from 200 milligrams to 4 grams a day, depending on the person age and condition.
Sources of Omega-3s
Since our bodies can't produce Omega-3s we have to be extremely diligent to make sure that our diet includes them. The good news is the fatty acids hide in tons of foods; take a look at these favorite sources:
Flaxseeds / Flaxseed Oil
Soybeans / Soybean Oil
Pumpkin Seeds /
Pumpkin Seeds Oil
Butter Substitute Spreads
Walnuts / Walnut Oil
Perilla Seeds Oil
Liver (Chicken and Beef)
Fortified Dairy Products
Fortified Orange Juice
It’s intuitive that with our Western diet it’s easier to get all the ALA needed. If you just consider flax, canola oil, soybean oil, olive oil, walnuts and other plant-based fats, many of these are eaten daily by almost everybody.
However, ALA on its own has no function in the body. The only reason it’s required is because the human can convert a little amount of ALA into DHA and EPA (which are far more essential for the correct for the human body). This conversion doesn’t happen very rapidly, and the amount of ALA that converted into DHA and/or EPA is never nearly enough.
When it comes to DHA and EPA, it gets kind of tricky as fish is not a popular food choice. In addition, the risks posed by heavy metals in bigger fish (such as tuna) makes even more difficult to get ideal amounts of these Omega-3s.
Also, algae supplements, are produced through a fermentation process that generates only DHA and not EPA.
There's also evidence (not conclusive though) that body has difficulty assimilating the DHA added to fortified foods as well as the EPA contained in butter substitute spreads.
Truth to be told, experts still don't know whether it's best to get our Omega-3s from seafood sources or plant sources. I’ve read hundreds of different articles from physicians and nutritionists and there is still much debate going on.
My take on this is that it’s better to get the right amounts of both ALA, DHA and EPA, and just forget about it.
Why Omega-3s work the magic in our bodies
EPA and DHA are both essential for heart health: they seem to lower blood pressure, reduce fat levels in the blood, slow the development of clots and avert abnormal heart rhythms, among other things.
However DHA alone is the star player in the developing brain and eyes.
Studies show that high doses of DHA and EPA on top of more traditional medicines can reduce morning stiffness and joint pain in arthritis patients. It can also help reduce the amount of pain medication people need to take.
Brain-based disorders are another area of interest. Some studies have found lower blood levels of omega-3s in adults with Alzheimer's and kids with ADHD than in comparable groups without those problems.
These are only the most notorious benefits of Omega-3s and I could on for pages just citing studies and researches on the topic, but will leave this matter for another post.
Regardless of the importance of Omega-3s, to date studies show that most Americans don't appear to be getting nearly enough it.
Americans consume fish an average of only once every 10 days, and 50% don't consume fish over a seven-day period. Supplements, meanwhile, are not a universal dietary staple. As a result, the average intake of DHA and EPA in the U.S. is an eighth of what people normally get in Japan and a quarter of what many experts now think we need.
Food labels are not that helpful. The packaging on eggs or margarine might tout Omega-3s, even though they contain a form that doesn't do much in the body or their concentrations of nutrients might be too small to make a difference.
Rule of thumb: aim for at least two servings of fatty fish per week for EPA and DHA and a daily helping of ALA from a plant source. And if you’re not eating enough fish you might consider using some supplements.
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