How Do I Pick the Right Omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids have become very popular in the vitamin and supplement world, but the truth is these fatty acids also come in food.
So, first, what are omega-3 fatty acids? They are essential unsaturated fatty acids that are important in the diet because your body cannot make them. Omega-3s come in three forms: EPA (eicosapentaeonic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines as well as in other seafood. ALA is mainly found in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean and Canola oils. It can also be found in soybeans, walnuts, flax and chia seeds.
It is typically recommended to get as many nutrients as you can from the foods you eat. However, if you do not consume a certain food group or like specific foods, then it can become important to supplement. While there is no set dietary allowance, most health organizations recommend consuming 250-500 mg of combined EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults. Some health conditions might warrant more. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend consuming 8 oz of seafood per week to get your essential fatty acids.
Omega-3 play a variety of roles in the body. They are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. They have been shown to improve heart health by lowering triglycerides and increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels. DHA is essential for brain development and function as well as in eye health. Women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should be consuming omega-3s from low-mercury fish and/or in their pre-natal vitamins to get DHA. There is also evidence that omega-3 fatty acids might help fight depression, anxiety, memory loss, cancer, reduce various types of inflammation and more.
If you are not consuming omega-3s from food, then a supplement is typically recommended. While there are some different choices, there are three major omega-3 oil supplement types: fish, krill and algae oils.
Fish oil comes from the oily tissue of fish, mostly in the form of triglycerides. Drinking or consuming natural fish oil is the closest thing to eating fish. About 30 percent is omega-3 with the rest of it being other fatty acids that can help with absorption.
Processed fish oil is purified and/or concentrated, which transforms the fat into the ethyl ester form. Purification rids the oil of contaminants such as mercury. The concentration process can also increase the amount of pure EPA and DHA in the oil to 50-90 percent. These supplements are inexpensive and come in the form of capsules, which are more popular with consumers. The challenge is that the ethyl ester form is not as well absorbed as natural fish oil. However, it is still a good choice.
Krill oil is extracted from Antarctic krill, a small, shrimp-like animal. It contains omega-3s in triglyceride and phospholipid forms. Some studies show it to have higher bioavailability, meaning that it is better absorbed. Krill oil is also low in mercury and a good source of astaxanthin, one of the strongest natural antioxidants, which is not found in most fish oils.
Marine algae, particularly, microalgae, is another triglyceride source of EPA and DHA. Interestingly, fish consume their omega-3s from microalgae and it moves up the food chain.
Studies show that algae oil is more concentrated in omega-3s, especially DHA, than fish oil. It may also include important minerals like iodine. Plus, it is a good omega-3 choice for vegetarians and vegans who choose not to eat fish.
Note that just because you might need an omega-3 supplement, does not mean you also need omega-6s and 9s. The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids in the Western diet to omega-3 is vastly off. Most people consume more than enough omega-6s because they are found in refined vegetable oils that are in processed foods. It is the omega-3s we need more of.
Here’s another important fact to keep in mind: Just because omega-3s are good for you does not mean you should supplement with them in excess. The FDA and American Heart Association says it is safe to take up to three grams or 3000 mg per day, but you should consult with a doctor if taking higher doses. Those taking blood thinning medications or preparing for surgery should also speak with their physician before supplementing with omega-3s.
The bottom line is to try to get your omega-3s from food, but when you can’t, fish, krill and algae oils can all be used as a supplement based on your preference.
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