You've heard about Omega-3's in dietary supplements such as fish oil and prenatal multivitamins, but what are they and how can they help?
First, let's start with what they are. Omega-3 fatty acids are heart-healthy fats found in a variety of foods such as oily fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies), seafood, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, plant oils, and fortified foods (e.g., certain eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy beverages, and infant formulas). They are also found in dietary supplements such as fish oil, algal oil, and certain prenatal multivitamins.
They are an important part of cell membranes and may be beneficial for cardiovascular health, infant cognitive development, adult cognitive function, eye health, joint pain, inflammation, and cancer prevention. Some research has shown that people who consume omega-3 fatty acids from food sources may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, dementia, cognitive decline, breast cancer, and possibly colorectal cancer. Diets such as the MIND Diet and Mediterranean diet are high in omega-3 fatty acids for these reasons!
From a chemistry standpoint, omega-3 fatty acids consist of three essential fatty acids - alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are called "essential" since the body is unable to create them and needs to obtain them from dietary sources or dietary supplements. Most Americans get enough ALA from food sources, typically in the form of plant oils such as soybean and canola oils. However, intake of EPA and DHA found mainly in fish and seafood may be low in a typical American diet. Eastern and European diets have higher-intake of fish and seafood. Although our bodies can convert some ALA into EPA and then DHA, dietary intake of EPA and DHA from food sources is also important to maintain adequate levels of omega-3s.
Thankfully, omega-3 deficiency is very rare in the United States. A deficiency can cause rough, scaly skin and a red, swollen, itchy rash. Research has suggested that omega-3s may improve signs and symptoms of psoriasis and eczema. It is possible to test your omega-3 fatty acid levels through a quick, dried blood spot test called an "Omega-3 Index" test. As not many doctors offer this service, there are a variety of companies who offer this test at a fee (typically not covered by insurance). These include Omega Quant, The Great Plains Laboratory, and Quest Diagnostics.
An Omega-3 Index test measures the amount of EPA and DHA in the blood and provides a percentage to identify your risk for cardiac events and other conditions associated with low omega-3 fatty acid levels.
So, how can I get more Omega-3 fatty acids in my diet?
Here are a few suggestions to start with:
- Aim for two 4-ounce servings fatty fish per week as part of a healthy, balanced diet
- Use canola oil, soybean oil, flax oil, walnut oil for cooking and for flavoring foods
- Add walnuts and pumpkin seeds to snacks, salads, oatmeals, and/or breakfast cereals
- Choose eggs that contain omega-3 fatty acids by reading egg carton labels
- Try chia seeds in chia puddings, smoothies, or oatmeal
- Try ground flaxseeds or flaxseed meal in oatmeal, smoothies, and healthier baked goods
One thing to note is to be mindful of dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may have side effects and/or interact with other medications you may take. Omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements may cause bleeding problems for those on anticoagulant medicines. Additionally, reported side effects include unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, smelly sweat. It's important to discuss with a healthcare provider about possible interactions with your medications prior to taking this or any dietary supplement.
For more information, please visit the Office of Dietary Supplements "Omega-3 Fatty Acids" page.
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