Omega-3s are one of the most talked-about supplements for a good reason, but what are they anyway? “Omega-3s are essential fatty acids naturally found in certain foods we eat,” Keri Gans, RDN, a nutrition consultant and the author of The Small Change Diet, tells Byrdie. Cathy Holligan, a certified holistic health coach and founder of Intentioned Wellness, explains that there are three types, all found in animals and plants, that are crucial for our overall health. “Omega-3s are important for our bodies in many ways,” she says. “We already know a lot about omega-3s and how they can benefit our bodies, but more research continues to uncover additional ways that omega-3s aid our health.”
Where Are Omega-3s Found?
As previously mentioned there are three types of these polyunsaturated fats found in animals and plants. “DHA and EPA are derived from fish,” Holligan says, “and ALA is found in plant sources.” One place they aren’t found? Our bodies. “This means the only way we can obtain them is from food or supplementation,” she points out.
Holligan explains that good sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, trout, and sardines. “Some fish contain high levels of mercury, so be sure you are considering that when choosing how to get your suggested weekly amount of omega-3s,” she warns. This is especially crucial if you are pregnant and need to limit mercury consumption. Good sources of ALA include ground or milled flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, soybeans or tofu, or flax oil.
Health Benefits of Omega-3s
- They Can Help Improve Your Heart Health: Holligan maintains that one of the most commonly talked about omega-3 health benefits is how they can improve heart health. “There is still conflicting research, but here is what we do know,” she says. “Omega 3s lower triglyceride levels, which lowers your risk for heart disease. They also reduce the risk of developing arrhythmias as well as slow the buildup of plaque, which are two more risk factors for heart-related issues. Omega 3s also reduce the risk of blood clots by preventing blood platelets from clumping together.” This is why the American Heart Association recommends people consume two 3.5-oz. servings of fish weekly.
- They Can Help Reduce Inflammation: Omega 3s play a big role in reducing inflammation in the body, and inflammation is one of the leading causes of many major illnesses, Holligan points out. “Reducing inflammation in the body is a great way to keep you healthy and not promote the growth of unwanted cells, such as cancer,” she says.
- They Can Help Control Rheumatoid Arthritis: EPA and DHA have also been found to decrease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis by suppressing the immune system response that causes joint inflammation, says Holligan. “Studies have shown that people who suffer from this condition experienced less joint stiffness, pain, and swelling while taking fish oil supplements," she says.
- They Offer Mental Health Benefits: According to Gans and multiple studies, omega-3s can help relieve depression.
- They May Have Brain-Boosting Powers: Another reason to get your Omegas? They can assist with proper brain function, says Holligan. “Brain cells require fatty acids. Providing your body with adequate amounts of omega-3s gives your brain the fatty acids necessary to function optimally.”
- They Can Promote Fetal Development: According to research, omega-3 fatty acids are important for fetal neurodevelopment and may also be crucial for the timing of gestation and birth weight. This is why it is important for pregnant women to amp up their intake.
- They May Help Control Blood Pressure: According to the Cleveland Clinic, people who eat fish tend to have lower blood pressure than those who don’t.
So, Do You Need to Take an Omega-3?
So, should you be investing in an omega-3 supplement? It depends on your diet. While some of us get enough omegas from food sources, Gans maintains that an individual may benefit from taking an omega-3 supplement if they are not consuming enough omega-3s through food alone. “Food first is always recommended,” she says. “However, in many instances the dose needed for a specific health benefit may be difficult to reach with food alone. Therefore, in some instances, supplementing is indeed needed.”
Holligan agrees. “It is always better to get omega-3s from food, but since sources are limited, some people may choose to supplement. If you do not eat fish, which is the main source of DHA and EPA, another option is to get your omega-3s from plant sources that contain ALA. However, ALA is not very efficient when it comes to being converted into EPA and DHA into the body, so you would have to consume a lot of it to get a good amount,” she points out.
Before taking any supplement or making changes to your diet, it is always best to consult your doctors, Holligan adds.