The Skinny on Omega-3s

The Skinny on Omega-3s

I feel like many people know that omega-3 fatty acids are important and healthy.  But what I feel like is many don’t know why or how to properly consume them.  If this is you, don’t fret because this is absolutely common!

In this blog, we’ll break down what omega-3 fatty acids are, why we should be consuming them, and where you can get them.  Yes…supplements are always an option but we’ll talk food sources as well. 

Why do we need them?

We need to consume Omega-3 fatty acids.  They are essential, meaning we cannot make them so we must consume them.  But it’s not as simple as eating fatty foods.

We need Omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation in the body, keep the ticker in tip top shape, and to support adequate brain function and health.  You can actually be deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids. 

Signs of Omega-3 deficiency include:
  • Dry skin
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Depression
  • Brittle nails
  • Anxiety
  • Dandruff
  • Joint pain
  • Excess ear wax

Small bumps on the backs of the arms or legs

These are just the most common signs of deficiency…there are others that will pop up and are individual dependent. 

What’s the best form of Omega-3s?

It’s important to know that not all Omega-3s are created equal.  There’s actually 11 different Omega-3s…I know.  We’re going to focus on the three most important ones…

Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

Docosahhexaenoic (DHA)

ALA is a common supplement found on the market and is a common fatty acid found in foods.  ALA can be found in:

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Soybeans and Soybean oil
  • Pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil
  • Perilla seed oil
  • Tofu
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
When we consume ALA, the liver works to covert ALA into EPA and DHA. 
 

EPA and DHA is where the money is at when it comes to reducing inflammation and maximizing the body’s use of Omega-3 fatty acids.  However, the conversion process, even in a healthy individual, is complicated and doesn’t always work.  Less than 10% of ALA is successfully converted into EPA and DHA.  To be more accurate, only 6% is converted to EPA and 3.8% is converted to DHA. 

There are several nutrients and enzymes used in the conversion process.  Additionally, we consume a lot of Omega-6 fatty acids in our modern diet.  Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary but in abundance can actually cause inflammation.  The problem is Omega-3s and Omega-6s use the same enzymes so they are in competition with each other.  If you consume ample Omega-3s but excessive Omega-6s, you’re likely not going to convert as much Omega-3s to the needed form in the body. 

To add to it, lack of a gallbladder and digestive issues can impair conversion and absorption of these fatty acids even more.  There are lots of factors at play here.

How much do we need?

The US Institute of Medicine recommends 1.6 g/day of Omega-3s for men and 1.1 g/day of Omega-3s for women.  While the actual EPA and DHA intake isn’t shown, I like to make sure most if not all comes from EPA and DHA. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I’m a food first gal.  So…how much should you be eating to maximize your EPA and DHA intake?  I never thought you’d ask!

Fish

Fish oil

Marine sources

These are the absolute best sources to obtain EPA and DHA in the diet.  Consuming fatty fish 2-3 times each week is best.  Fatty fish includes salmon, cod, mackerel, tuna, mussels, and anchovies…to name a few. 

For non-fish eating people, including those that just don’t like it and vegans, I always recommend an algae fish oil (for vegans) or fish oil for meat eaters that don’t like fish.  CAUTION!  Not all fish oil supplements are created equal.

Supplementation

Often, a supplement will promote 1,000 mg of Omega-3s in their daily supplement. But you should really be paying attention to the EPA/DHA content.  So, flip that sucker around and look at the back.  If we look at Now Foods Omega-3 supplement, it has 1,000 mg of Omega-3s but only 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA.  In my opinion, this isn’t enough.  But if we look at Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, it contains 1,280 mg of Omega-3 with 650 mg of EPA and 450 mg of DHA.  A much better option.

For my vegan brethren, I recommend a nice algae supplement.  Nordic Naturals has one as well.  Their algae supplement contains 715 mg of Omega-3 with 195 mg of EPA and 390 mg of DHA.  While it doesn’t contain as much as fish oil, it’s still a good option.  Metagenics also has a nice algae supplement as well. 

Use in practice

I use omega supplements with several of my clients.  I will “prescribe” one if I notice an abundance of symptoms telling me they may need some more in their diet.  I will almost always suggest them if someone has high cholesterol or low cholesterol…yes, low cholesterol can be bad (read here about why we need cholesterol).  The rest of the time…it’s a case-by-case basis.  I’ve used them for someone that has a lot of inflammation in the body.  I’ve also used them for individuals that have cognitive issues…difficulty concentrating, poor memory, etc.  But, like I said, I’m a food first gal!

So, tell me….do you take a fish oil supplement?  If so, after what you read, do you think it’s a good quality supplement?  Or, do you consume fish a few times each week?

Leave a comment and let me know!

References:

Essential Fatty Acids. (2018, May 02). Retrieved from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids

Gerster, H. (n.d.). Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9637947

The 3 Most Important Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/3-types-of-omega-3#section7

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Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Join my closed Facebook group today! https://www.facebook.com/groups/140571826548289/

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