Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Chances are, if you have high cholesterol, are at high risk of developing heart disease, have inflammatory issues, or are concerned about brain health, you have probably talked with your doctor about taking fish oil pills, which have been shown to help with all of these conditions. The reason fish oil has such beneficial effects on a number of conditions is that it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two types of fat that are crucial for optimal health.  EPA and DHA are also known as essential fatty acids, meaning your body can’t produce them on its own, so the only way you can meet your needs for these nutrients is through food or supplementation.  Many people turn to fish oil supplements as a convenient way to meet their essential fatty acid needs, but there are actually other, tastier ways to do so.

Fish oil is made from, obviously, fish, which means that eating the “real thing” will provide you with the same nutrients as a pill.  The bonus of eating fish that contain omega-3s is that your body will absorb more of these fatty acids than if you were to take a pill, plus the fish will provide other beneficial nutrients like protein. The best sources of omega-3s are oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and anchovies, although most types of fish contain EPA or DHA in varying amounts.  You can meet your body’s needs for omega-3s through food alone if you eat two servings of oily fish each week; a serving of fish is generally considered 3.5 ounces.

Some people, myself included, are not fans of oily fish, but there’s hope for us yet, as other healthy foods, like flaxseeds and walnuts, also contain omega-3 fatty acids.  The type of omega-3 found in foods other than fish is of a slightly different variety, however, which is not as well-absorbed as the omega-3s found in fish.  The omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds and walnuts is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA.  Although ALA on its own doesn’t confer the same nutritional benefits as EPA and DHA, your body is able to partially convert it to its more beneficial omega-3 counterparts.  What this means is that, when you eat a food that contains ALA, an extra step has to occur in order for your body to use it in the same way it uses EPA and DHA.  Therefore, ALA is not used as efficiently or absorbed as well as EPA and DHA, although it’s a still a great way to increase omega-3 intake without eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements.

If you prefer to take a supplement to ensure adequate omega-3 intake, know that fish oil has been proven to be more effective (and safer) than up-and-coming “designer” counterparts like krill oil.  Flaxseed oil is a good vegetarian alternative to fish oil, but like flaxseeds themselves, the omega-3s it contains will not be as well-absorbed.  Although fish oil supplementation is generally safe, research shows that consuming greater than 3,000 mg (or 3 grams) of fish oil a day increases the risk of serious side effects like stroke.  As always, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any supplementation routine, and aim to get your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and most other nutrients, the natural way – through food!


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