Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish, algae, krill, flax, walnuts, and canola oil. They include DHA, EPA, and ALA. Many Americans do not get enough Omega-3 in their diets.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are types of fats that the body can’t make. People can only get them through dietary sources.
There are two classes of EFAs: omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. Both types are essential to stay healthy. But most people consume too many foods rich in omega-6 fats and not enough foods rich in omega-3 fats.
Keep reading to learn more about why most people in the United States tend to not get enough omega-3s in general and how you can increase the amount of omega-3s in your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are types of fats that are only found in certain foods and supplements. There are three main types of omega-3 fats:
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
DHA and EPA are found in foods such as cold-water fish, algae, and krill. ALA is found in plant foods like flax, walnuts, and canola oil.
Your body can use DHA and EPA right after you consume them.
But ALA has to be converted into DHA and EPA to be used by the body for something other than energy. When ALA is not converted to EPA or DHA, it’s stored or used for energy like any other dietary fat.
Also, the amount of ALA that gets converted is pretty small. Studies suggest that, in people consuming a typical Western diet, only about 5 to 8 percent of ALA converts into EPA. Even less converts into DHA, between 0.5 and 5 percent.
Consuming a sufficient amount of omega-3 fats is important. Increasing your intake, by eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and taking omega-3 supplements, has been linked to several health benefits.
For example, omega-3s support:
- Heart health.
Researchhas found benefits related to heart disease risk factors.
- Brain health. Omega-3s may help support cognitive function. Research has focused on conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Inflammatory conditions. Omega-3 fats may help regulate inflammation in the body.
- Vision health.
Researchhas focused on age-related macular degeneration and dry eye disease, but evidence is limited.
While several studies have shown the health benefits of omega-3s, there’s still a lack of high-quality research in some of these areas.
Although guidelines recommend a combined DHA and EPA intake of between
For perspective, 3 ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon has about
What’s more, even though the optimal dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has been suggested to be a 2-to-1 ratio or less, most Americans have a dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratio that ranges between 10-to-1 and 25-to-1.
This is because people in the United States tend to eat more omega-6-rich vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, and soybean, found in virtually all processed foods, and less omega-3-rich foods like fatty fish.
Omega-3 fats play a variety of important roles in the body.
They form molecules called eicosanoids, which act as messengers in your body. These play critical roles in your immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and pulmonary systems. Omega-3s also provide the body with energy.
Having a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s has been associated with an increased risk of developing a variety of health issues. This includes:
- inflammatory skin conditions
- increased heart disease risk factors
- metabolic syndrome
Risk factors for omega-3 deficiency
Although omega-3 insufficiency or inadequacy has been shown to be common in people of all ages in the United States, true omega-3 deficiency is rare.
However, studies have shown that certain populations are at an increased risk of having a diet that’s insufficient in omega-3 fats.
For example, in one study, researchers found that, among other groups, adult and older women were
Those on very low fat diets, vegans, and people with malabsorption issues may also be at a
Omega-3s can be consumed through food sources. For those who don’t regularly consume fatty fish, omega-3 supplementation is an alternative to consider.
Foods rich in DHA and EPA include:
- fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, anchovies, tuna, sardines, and herring
- shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels
- caviar (fish eggs)
- eggs, meat, and dairy from pasture-raised animals contain small amounts
Foods rich in ALA include:*
- walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds
- soybean oil and soybeans
- perilla and canola oil
*Keep in mind that the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA by the body is poor.
There are both plant- and animal-based omega-3 supplements.
Krill oil, fish oil, algal oil, and cod liver oil are dietary supplements rich in DHA and EPA.
Algal oil is perhaps the best source of plant-based omega-3 fats because algal oil contains EPA and DHA, while other plant-based foods contain ALA, which is not efficiently converted into DHA and EPA by the body.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential for health.
However, most people in the United States consume too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. Consuming enough omega-3s is important because they support heart and brain health.
You can optimize your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and improve your overall health by increasing your intake of foods and supplements rich in omega-3s.