Finding the right omega-3 supplement has never been trickier. Sure, you’ve got standard fish oil, but there’s also krill oil, algae-based omegas, and high-potency omegas to consider.
Picking the best supplement for you comes down to your dietary needs, lifestyle, and personal preferences. Here, dietitians break down all of your different omega-3 options—and how to find your perfect match.
What Exactly Are Omega-3s—And Why Do We Need Them?
Omega-3s are a particular type of fatty acid that research has linked with all sorts of health benefits.
“Omega-3 fatty acids play a very important role in the body,” explains Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. “They make up part of our cell membranes, where they affect the function and permeability of the cells, and help support immune function.”
These good-for-you fats are particularly famous for their significant impact on brain, heart, eye, joint, and immune health.
The three main kinds of omega-3s are EPA, DHA, and ALA. EPA and DHA are considered the most vital. (While we can get ALA from walnuts, chia, and flax seeds, our body can’t use it efficiently.)
While EPA and DHA are found in foods like fish, many people don’t eat fish often enough to consume ample amounts. That’s where supplements come in handy.
There’s no official RDA (recommended daily intake) for EPA and DHA, but most experts recommend around 250 to 500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per day.
The Different Types Of Omega-3 Supplements
There are five main types of omega-3 supplements out there—each with its own unique benefits.
1. Fish Oil
For the average person, who doesn’t have any dietary restrictions or fish allergies, your basic fish oil is a great omega-3 supplement option. These supplements are made by extracting the oils from fatty, omega-3-containing fish.
“Look for fish oils sourced from small, low-mercury fatty fish, such as sardines, anchovies, pollock, and salmon,” advises Blakely. “These fish are naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids and can be sustainably sourced.”
One thing to note: Some fish oil supplements come in bovine gelatin capsules, which pescatarians may want to avoid, adds dietitian Carolann Salinardo, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N.
2. Krill Oil
Krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that whales eat, are rich in the omega-3s EPA and DHA, says Blakely. Their oil also contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant believed to support eye, skin, heart, and joint health.
“People looking for an added antioxidant benefit—including those with eye health concerns, those looking for skin health benefits, and athletes seeking a recovery boost—may want to try krill oil,” Blakely suggests.
Though more research is needed, a few small initial studies (like this one published in Lipids in Health and Disease) suggest that krill oil might be better absorbed than fish oil and have additional benefits for heart health, Blakely notes.
Given their potential added benefit, krill oil supplements tend to be more expensive than fish oil.
3. Algae Oil
A recent trend in the omega-3 scene, “algae oil is the only plant source of the omega-3s EPA and DHA that are found in fish and krill oil,” explains Blakely. In fact, fish get their own omega-3s by eating algae, so algae oil supplements basically cut straight to the original source.
If you don’t eat fish or shellfish—or dislike the smell of fish and krill oil supplements—an algae-based product may be a better fit.
4. Flax Oil
Another plant-based option, flax oil is rich in ALA, which your body can convert to DHA and EPA. However, it’s not the most efficient source of omega-3s, since the body doesn’t convert ALA into DHA and EPA well.
“If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck from an omega-3 supplement, I suggest either a fish oil or algae oil,” Blakely says. However, if neither algae nor fish oil works for you, flax oil is a good back-up.
Plus, flax oil isn’t just a one-trick pony. In addition to containing omega-3s, flax is also a great source of the antioxidant vitamin E, which may contribute to skin and hair health.
5. Cod Liver Oil
Extracted from the livers of cod fish, cod liver oil is an old-school supplement that’s making a comeback.
“Since it’s sourced from liver, cod liver oil is naturally high in vitamins A and D, making it a good option for those looking for extra eye, skin, bone, mood, or immune system support,” says Blakely. (A single teaspoon provides up to 90 percent of your daily vitamin A needs, and often just as much vitamin D.) Cod liver oil also contains EPA and DHA, but some supplements may offer more or less of these important fats than others, so check your labels.
8 Questions To Consider When Hunting For An Omega-3 Supplement
To find the right omega-3 supplement for your individual needs, consider the following questions.
1. Do you get enough omega-3s from your diet?
Unless you eat fish regularly, chances are you need more omega-3s. “Anyone who doesn’t eat the recommended two-to-three servings of fatty fish per week should consider an omega-3 supplement in order to meet their basic dietary needs,” says Blakely.
2. Does it have a third-party testing seal?
To ensure your omega-3 supplement is high quality, buy a product that sports a GMP seal, which indicates the brand uses “good manufacturing practices” to ensure purity.
Look out for The Vitamin Shoppe’s quality seal (which confirms a 320-step quality assurance process and third-party testing for ingredient purity and potency) on all of its own brand products.
If you’re concerned about sustainability, look for certifications from organizations like Marine Stewardship Council or Friend of the Sea, which indicate high sustainability standards, Blakely advises.
3. How much EPA and DHA does the supplement provide?
When checking a product label, make sure it lists at least 250 to 500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA, Blakely says. While some products may list “5,000 milligrams” of fish oil on the front of the bottle, only a fraction of that is EPA and DHA. (According to Blakely, cheaper supplements typically contain less EPA and DHA.)
“Standard fish oil usually contains around 30 percent omega-3s,” says Blakely. That means if you buy a 1,000-milligram fish oil, it will contain 300 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.
4. What’s the delivery system?
You can buy many omega-3 supplements in liquid or capsule form. While capsules may be more convenient, liquid is generally absorbed quicker by the body, says Salinardo.
“The size of the soft gel may be a consideration as well,” Salinardo adds. For easier swallowing, look for mini soft gels.
5. Do you need more omega-3s than the average person?
Even if you make a point to cook up salmon often, certain people may need more omega-3s than others. In fact, if you have certain health conditions, your healthcare provider may recommend you take a higher-potency supplement. (“Potency” simply refers to how much omega-3s a supplement contains.)
“Fish oil can be concentrated to contain a much higher percentage of omega-3s, so you can obtain more omega-3s without taking more pills.” (Many of these supplements contain upwards of 60 percent omega-3s.)
Generally, people in the following groups can benefit from more omega-3 in their diet, according to Blakely:
- individuals with coronary heart disease (the American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA)
- individuals with high triglycerides (he AHA recommends 2,000 to 4,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA daily)
- pregnant and nursing women (the American Pregnancy Association recommends a minimum of 300 milligrams of DHA, in addition to EPA for healthy fetal brain development)
People with mood disorders, cognitive concerns, joint issues, or immune concerns can also benefit from more omega-3s
6. Are you an athlete?
Incredible as exercise may be for your body, it is also a stressor.
Because of their role in supporting the immune system and joints, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for highly active people. If you run, lift weights, or participate in other demanding physical activities regularly, consider a high-potency omega-3 supplement or krill oil, says Blakely.
7. Are you skeeved by fish oil supplements?
If you simply can’t stomach fish oil, opt for a vegan omega-3 formulation.
“The biggest problem we see with omega-3s is lack of tolerability,” says Arielle Levitan, M.D., author of The Vitamin Solution. “People have trouble swallowing the pills, get an upset stomach, or report a fishy aftertaste or ‘fish burps.’”
An algae-based omega-3 supplement is less likely to cause to these issues.
8. What are the added ingredients?
“As with any supplement, look for a label with the least added ingredients,” says Salinardo. When possible, look for formulations made with non-GMO ingredients and without any artificial flavoring or ingredients.
You’ll also want to be wary of supplements made with fish typically high in heavy metals, since those metals can potentially be passed into your system. Salinardo recommends avoiding fish oils made with tuna, mackerel, or swordfish—especially if you’re trying to conceive, get pregnant, or are breastfeeding.
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