The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important to your health. These fatty acids are part of the membranes surrounding the cells in our body. Getting more omega-3 fatty acids into your daily diet can provide a whole host of health benefits.
The health benefits of omega-3s include:
— Helping to prevent against heart attack and strokes.
— Increasing blood flow to the brain.
— Helping with memory.
— Decreasing inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids also provide modest relief for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, says registered dietitian Kristen F. Gradney, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who also owns her own practice in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Why food sources of omega-3s are important
As much as possible, it’s important to get omega-3 fatty acids as part of a well-rounded diet versus supplements, says Daniela Novotny, a registered dietitian and an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. A healthy eating regimen that includes omega-3 fatty acids also will include other vitamins and minerals that help our bodies run properly.
It’s also important to think about the variety of omega-3 fatty acids available in foods. There are actually several different types of omega-3 fatty acids. The three that researchers have studied the most are:
— Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
What are ALA, EPA and DHA?
ALA, EPA and DHA are three of the most predominant and important omega-3 fatty acids, Novotny says. ALA is found in plant-based foods, including flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. EPA and DHA tend to be found in fish oil.
Omega-3s may provide some benefit for a number of health conditions, including:
— Ulcerative colitis.
— Rheumatoid arthritis.
— Multiple sclerosis.
— Renal disease.
EPA is important in the eye and brain development in infants.
DHA is associated with improved heart health and vision. It’s also linked to fighting inflammation. DHA is important in brain development during early childhood and pregnancy.
Salmon and other fatty fish
— Salmon. In fact, a 3-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon has 2 grams of omega-3s, according to Gradney.
Eating a 3.5- to 4-ounce serving of oily fish at least twice weekly is a solid way to boost your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids — and it may be easier to do than you think.
“We don’t always think of fish as a convenience food, but it thaws quickly and can be baked, grilled and filleted,” Novotny says. Fish also can be used in sandwiches. Several of these fish come in easy to-go pouches or cans at the store and sometimes are packed together with crackers, making them a quick on-the-go meal, Novotny adds.
Walnuts have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, says Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital in Arlington, Texas. Walnuts contain 2.6 grams of ALA per ounce, according to nuts.com. Alternatively, “Try walnut oil in salad dressings,” Taylor suggests.
Chia seeds are not only a good source of omega-3s, they also contain healthy amounts of calcium, magnesium and fiber, says Bethany M. Doerfler, a clinical research dietitian in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. She also works in her division’s Digestive Health Center. You can consume chia seeds in a variety of ways, she says. They’re great to use in baking muffins, breads and in stir-fry. You can also ground the seeds into a fine powder and mix them into breadcrumbs used to coat meat and fish.
Like chia seeds, flaxseeds are another seed rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Just a tablespoon of flaxseed has 2 grams of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3s, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also has 2 grams of fiber and is low-calorie.
Much like chia seeds, you can add small servings of ground flaxseed to:
— Smoothies or smoothie bowls.
If you’re concerned about flaxseed flavor taking over your food, rest assured that this humble seed doesn’t really change how your food tastes. Make sure you consume ground flaxseed, so the omega-3 fatty acids can be absorbed, advises Dr. Jeffrey Landsman, a primary care physician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Otherwise, your body will consume the seed whole without obtaining the omega-3s, Landsman explains. You can easily find ground flaxseed at the supermarket.
It’s also important to start slow if you’re new to eating flaxseed because of its high fiber content. Drinking more water can help your body better absorb the fiber, according to the Mayo Clinic.
These types of oil can easily add omega-3s to your eating regimen:
— Olive oil.
— Canola oil.
— Soybean oil.
“Use small amounts of (these oils) with your cooking,” Taylor says. “Fats are calorie dense, so it is important to use portion control.”
Omega-3 fortified eggs and other fortified foods
Some hens are fed flaxseed, leading them to produce eggs that have omega-3 fatty acids (otherwise, eggs are not usually a source of omega-3s for your diet). Look out for egg cartons labeled “enriched with omega-3” or “contains omega-3” to make sure you’re buying the right kind.
“Eggs are a great source of protein, and they have healthy fats,” Novotny says. Eggs are also a versatile food, she adds. Make a hard-boiled egg as a snack or to go with a meal, prepare an omelet or combine eggs with the vegetables you have on hand for a frittata.
You may also find other foods fortified with omega-3s, meaning that the fatty acids have been added to them in their processing. These may include yogurts, juices, milks and even infant formulas. The exact content of omega-3 in fortified foods will vary.
Many registered dietitians generally recommend that we use food to get important nutrients into our body. However, if that’s hard to do (and that is indeed sometimes hard with a typical Western diet), then they may recommend the use of an omega-3 supplement.
There are a variety of omega-3 supplement types available, including:
— Fish oil.
— Flaxseed oil.
— Krill oil.
Fish oil tends to be higher in EPA and DHA, Novotny says. However, vegetarians may opt for flaxseed oil or algae oil to avoid consuming a fish product, Landsman says. In fact, certain fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids because of the algae they eat, he explains.
Some labels may say the supplement contains “fish oil,” but look for a specific label to say how much combined EPA and DHA it’s providing, Novotny advises.
To recap, here are seven good sources of omega-3 fats:
— Chia seeds.
— Omega-3 fortified eggs and other fortified foods.
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Update 02/18/21: This slideshow was previously published and has been updated with new information.