The Health Benefits of Omega-3s: Hero or Hype?

Posted by Kaerrie Hall

Jun 26, 2018 9:15:00 AM

Fatty fish like salmon provide the health benefits of omega-3sWhat are omega-3s fatty acids and how important are they to your health? In this article, we take a look at the different types of omega-3s, the ways in which omega-3s benefit your health, and several omega-3 food sources to consider adding to your diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids help your body’s cells work properly, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and reduce joint pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis. They are also thought to play a role in reducing inflammation, supporting eye health, lowering blood pressure, improving memory as we age, keeping short-term memory sharp, and lowering the risk for dementia. 

Those are just a few of the health benefits that have been associated with omega-3s. So, what are omega-3s and how do we get more of them? 

Types of Omega-3s

There are three main types of omega-3s. DHA and EPA, the types found in seafood (fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and trout, and shellfish like crab, mussels, and oysters), are thought to provide the highest health benefits. The third type, ALA, is found in plants.

Good sources of ALA include vegetable oils, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and dark leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli. To go beyond the acronyms and learn more about the three main types of omega-3s, click here.

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Our Bodies Need Omega-3s

Our bodies need omega-3s but can't make ALA on their own and don't produce enough DHA and EPA on their own, so we add these to our diet. 

Some people do so through dietary supplements, such as fish oil supplements, which contain EPA and DHA, or flaxseed oil supplements, which contain ALA. But as more studies are published that suggest omega-3 supplements don’t offer the benefits we get from eating foods high in omega-3s, more people are turning to food sources to supplement their omega-3 intake.  

Adding Omega-3s To Your Diet

Fatty fish and leafy greens are good sources of omega-3s, which have many health benefits

What do the experts say about the benefits of adding omega-3s to your diet?   

  • Omega-3s and the heart: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that studies done on heart disease and diets rich in seafood have provided "moderate evidence that people who eat seafood at least once a week are less likely to die of heart disease than those who rarely or never eat seafood." However, they noted that “supplements of EPA and DHA have not been shown to protect against heart disease.”
  • Omega-3s and rheumatoid arthritis: In 2012, a review of scientific literature led the NIH to conclude that EPA and DHA found in seafood and fish oil "may be modestly helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis." 
  • Omega-3s and the eyes: According to the American Optometric Association, research has shown that DHA and EPA "are important for proper visual development and retinal function" and that a deficiency in omega-3s has been linked to dry eye syndrome, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration.
  • Omega-3s and the brain: Multiple studies show omega-3 fatty acids exhibit properties that help protect the brain and have the potential to treat a variety of neurodegenerative and neurological disorders. 
  • DHA and the eyes and brain: The NIH has stated that while it’s clear DHA plays an important role in the functioning of our eyes and brain, there is still research to be done to determine if DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent or treat certain brain- and eye-related conditions.

Boost Your Intake of Omega-3s With Fish

Now that you know how good omega-3s are for you, what's the best way to add these healthy fats to your diet?

The American Heart Association suggests boosting your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating at least two servings of fish (particularly fatty fish) per week. Preferably, fish should be baked, broiled, or poached.

Each serving should be about 3.5 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards), or about 3/4 cup if you're eating flaked fish like tuna.

Holy Mackerel, That’s a Lot of Omega-3s

Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include wild salmon, which has more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of omega-3s in just one 3-ounce serving, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring, and Alaskan halibut.

Even the little fish go big when it comes to omega-3s.

  • Mackerel, a small, fatty fish that is usually smoked and eaten as whole fillets, packs 4,107 mg of omega-3s in each serving.
  • Sardines, the small, oily fish usually eaten out of a can, contain 2,205 mg per serving.
  • Anchovies, often found on Caesar salads or on top of pizza for those who dare, have 951 mg of omega-3s per 2-ounce can.

Other Food Sources for Omega-3s

Pistachio nuts, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids for health benefits

The Eat This, Not That website says foods you may not realize are also high in omega-3s include firm tofu, which offers 814 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce serving, and navy beans, which offer 1,190 mg of ALA per cup.

You might also:

  • Add some flaxseed oil to your salad and get a whopping 7,300 mg of omega-3s per tablespoon
  • Sprinkle chia seeds on meals or in smoothies for a boost of 2,500 mg per tablespoon
  • Snack on some walnuts to treat yourself to 2,542 mg of omega-3s per ounce (about 7 walnuts)
  • Choose spinach or Brussels sprouts for your side dishes to bump up your omega-3 intake

More About the Health Benefits of Omega-3s

Want to start a healthier diet? Get tips by clicking here!

Talk to your doctor about the connection between omega-3s and your health, and ask about dietary options that fit with your particular health and age. 

For more information about improving your health by giving your body the nutrients it needs, visit the following links:

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