What's the Deal with Omega-3s?
Here's why it's important to get enough of this essential nutrient.
Few nutrients have been studied as thoroughly as omega-3s, essential fatty acids that contain a ton of health benefits for the heart and brain. Since they're essential, the body needs them to survive. Omega-3 fatty acids can't be made by the body naturally, so you may not be getting what you need to stay healthy if you're not eating the right foods.
Certain types of cold-water fish are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. That's why the American Heart Association® recommends eating at least 2 servings a week of fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, trout or tuna. These contain two kinds of omega-3s—EPA and DHA—and both have major health benefits. A serving is considered 3-4 ounces, or slightly bigger than a checkbook. Oysters, sardines and anchovies are also good sources of this fatty acid.
If you're not a seafood lover, some plant sources, such as nuts and seeds, contain ALA, another type of omega-3 that's also good for you. ALA can be found in walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, canola oil, soy and tofu.
Other foods that contain smaller amounts of fatty acids are eggs, meats and dairy products from grass-fed animals. Hemp seeds, spinach and Brussels sprouts also contain some omega-3s.
Heart Benefits of Omega-3s
Omega-3s may help heart function in numerous ways. Most research involves EPA and DHA (fatty acids in fish), but ALA may also improve health. Benefits of omega-3s may include:
- Decreasing triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood
- Raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the "good" cholesterol
- Slowing the buildup of plaque, which harden and block arteries
- Reducing the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Lowering the risk of blood clots by preventing blood platelets from clumping together
- Helping lower blood pressure
Other Benefits of Omega-3s
Omega-3s provide many other health benefits, too. Here are some of them:
- Brain Health: Fatty acids are vital for the maintenance of normal brain function throughout life, from infancy through old age.
- Inflammation: Omega-3s may reduce chronic inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease and cancer.
- Mental Illness: Symptoms of depression, anxiety and mood swings may improve with an increase in omega-3s.
- Eye Health: Omega-3s are linked to a reduced risk of macular degeneration, a leading cause of permanent eye damage and blindness.
- Bone and Joint Health: Omega-3s may boost the amount of calcium in your bones, which may lead to a reduced risk of osteoporosis.
- Sleep: Omega-3s may increase the length and quality of sleep.
- Skin Health: Omega-3s may help prevent premature aging and protect skin against sun damage.
Fish Oil Supplements
Experts suggest that it's better to focus on eating a few servings of fish or other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids each week rather than taking fish oil supplements. Whole foods contain many nutrients besides omega-3s that work together to keep your heart and body healthy. But if you can't find a way to get enough omega-3's in your diet, ask your doctor if supplementation is right for you.
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Date Last Reviewed: December 16, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RD