Fishing for the types of omega-3s with the most benefits? Learn how to get this healthy fat in your diet

  • 2 Minutes Read
Sue Heikkinen
Sue Heikkinen, MS, RDN, CDCES, BC-ADM, ACE-PT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

You know about the numerous benefits of omega-3s, but do you know the difference between the three main types and how to include them in your diet?

Types of omega-3s

What are the types of omega-3 fats?

Omega-3 fats are heart-healthy, polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) found in seafood and certain plant foods. Omega-3s have a reputation as a healthy type of fat that offers potential benefits for heart protection and decreasing inflammation. Omega-3s are also essential parts of our cell walls. The three main types of omega-3s are:

1. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

Found primarily in cold-water fish and other seafood, DHA is highly concentrated in the human brain. Therefore, researchers study it for potential benefits for brain development and brain health.

Although no formal recommendation for DHA intake exists, most experts suggest at least 200 mg during pregnancy, given DHA's role in brain development. Prenatal vitamins commonly include DHA for this reason.

2. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)

Like DHA, EPA is also primarily found in cold-water fish and other seafood, and there is no official recommendation for EPA intake.

Omega-3 supplements with a higher concentration of EPA relative to DHA show potential benefits for depression. EPA is also available in a purified form as a prescription medication. This medication is FDA-approved for use by people with very high triglycerides (500 mg/dL or higher) and in combination with statin medications for people with moderately elevated triglycerides and a high risk of cardiovascular disease.

3. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)

ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning your body cannot make it, and you must obtain it from food. Found in plant foods such as flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts, ALA provides an omega-3 source for people who don't eat seafood. However, your body converts only a small amount of ALA into DHA and EPA.

The Adequate Intake (AI) for ALA is 1.6 g/day for women and 1.1 g/day for men.

What are the recommendations for omega-3 intake?

Because seafood is the main dietary source of DHA and EPA, several organizations recommend eating seafood to increase your intake of these important types of omega-3s. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least 8 ounces of seafood per week. Likewise, the American Heart Association recommends eating 6-8 ounces of seafood per week, particularly oily fish such as salmon or mackerel.

If you have concerns about the safety of seafood consumption for pre-pregnancy, during pregnancy and nursing, and for young children, refer to this advice from the FDA. The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides the Seafood Watch consumer guide for sustainable seafood selections.

Omega-3 content of selected foods

Food, portion Total Omega-3 (mg) EPA (mg) DHA (mg) ALA (mg)
Walnuts, English 1 oz. 2,570 - - 2,570
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed, 3 oz. cooked 1971 587 1,239 -
Chia seeds, 1 tbsp. 2,140 - - 2,140
Canola oil, 1 tbsp. 1,279 - - 1,279
Mackerel, 3 oz. cooked 1,113 429 594 -
Avocado, half 112 - - 112

Do I need an omega-3 supplement?

Many people fall short on omega-3 consumption, although the jury is still out on whether supplements are beneficial for everyone. It is unclear if fish oil supplements can prevent heart problems in people without heart disease, yet more substantial evidence supports consuming fish. So if you have a choice, eat fish rather than rely on a supplement.

In a review of the research, the American Heart Association did not find adequate evidence to recommend omega-3 supplementation for heart protection. They stated that omega-3 supplements likely offer protection for people who have had a recent heart attack or suffer from heart failure.

People sometimes use high doses of over-the-counter supplements or prescription omega-3 products to lower triglycerides.

Check with your health care provider before starting a fish oil supplement, especially if you already take prescription medication. High doses of fish oil (e.g., 3000mg or more) could produce side effects like blood thinning.

If you are vegetarian or don't eat fish, consider algae-sourced DHA and EPA supplements, given the limited conversion of ALA to the more potent omega-3s.

Read Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth to learn more about omega-3 supplements and their health effects.

Do you want to track your omega-3 intake?

Great news-MyNetDiary now allows you to track the intake of the three main types of omega-3s (DHA, EPA, and ALA), as well as total omega-3, from food and supplements. Please note that this information is not currently available for many basic and brand-name foods. We provide this information for your tracking whenever it is available. Use our easy Photo Food Service to help us provide updated nutrient information, including omega-3s, for any food or supplement.

Original contributions from Katherine Isacks MPS, RDN, CDCES

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Nutrients->Fats Nutrients->Supplements
Sep 8, 2021
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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