By Emily Barr, MS, RD, CSP, CLEC, clinical dietitian at CHOC
You’ve probably heard the many health benefits associated with eating omega-3 fatty acids, but it’s easy to be confused by each variety. Which one is the one you need? Where can you find it? And most importantly, how much? Let this be your guide to sorting out the confusion.
Omega-3 fat is an umbrella term for the polyunsaturated fat family. There are three main fats in this group: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA). These fats are essential because the body cannot make them on its own; it relies 100 percent on you to include these foods in your diet. A small amount of ALA can convert into EPA and DHA in the body, but since the process is not efficient, it’s important to eat a variety of foods rich in omega-3s.
An Important Part of Heart Health
Omega-3 fats have anti-clotting effects that help prevent heart disease and stroke. They also help your heart keep a steady beat, preventing it from increasing in rhythm, which puts your heart at risk. These fats also help lower your blood pressure, keep your blood vessels healthier, and lower your triglycerides.
As an anti-inflammatory, omega-3s can reduce your risk of clogged arteries, as well as help with conditions like eczema and arthritis. Omega-3 consumption has also been linked to lower risks of cancer. DHA specifically provides additional benefits to your brain health and functioning.
The suggested daily intake for ALA varies between 0.7-1.6 grams per day depending on age and gender. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association, and the World Health Organization agree that your diet should consist of 500 mg DHA/EPA per day, which is equivalent to eating fatty fish twice a week. The highest amounts of EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish including salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel, cod, and if you dare, anchovies and sardines.
If fish is not on your weekly menu, you may want to consider some of the following sources of omega-3s. ALA are found in vegetarian fats, especially rich in vegetable oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean, and walnut oils), nuts, seeds (flax, hemp and chia seeds), and leafy vegetables including Brussel sprouts, kale and spinach.
Foods fortified with omega-3s include:
- Buttery spreads
- Some bread and pasta
Introduce a few omega-3 rich foods into your diet, and in time you will be replacing unhealthy fats with healthy ones. Try the recipe below for an omega 3-rich smoothie as an easy way to start incorporating these essential fatty acids into your diet.
“Oh-MEGA-3” Fruit Smoothie
1 cup Mixed Frozen Fruit
1 Tablespoon Flaxseed
1 Tablespoon Hemp or Chia Seed
½ cup Milk or Omega-3 fortified Orange Juice
Blend all ingredients and enjoy!