Given their brain, heart, eye, and other health benefits, you’d think we’d all be loading up on omega-3s left and right. Thing is, most Americans don’t—at all. Here’s how to finally up your intake and reap the benefits.
The Omega-3 Basics
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that supports healthy blood pressure and triglyceride levels, makes up much of our brain, and more.
“DHA and EPA are the forms of omega-3s found in abundance in the body,” says Johane Filemon, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T., owner of Wonderfully Nutritious Solutions. “Therefore, they’re the most important for consumers.” EPA and DHA are found in the foods we often think about as omega-3 sources, like fish and eggs.
Then there’s ALA. Found in plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds, ALA can be converted into EPA and then DHA in the body. Issue is, the body’s ability to convert ALA to DHA is pretty inefficient.
How Many Omega-3s We Need
The National Institutes of Medicine recommends men and women consume 1.6 and 1.1 grams of ALA a day, respectively. (An ounce of walnuts provides more than two grams.)
Though there’s no official daily recommended intake for EPA and DHA, many experts recommend an intake of about 250 milligrams of the two fatty acids combined per day. (Just an ounce of wild-caught Atlantic salmon provides twice that.)
People with heart health issues may benefit from consuming more omega-3s, and should work with their doctor to determine the intake that’s right for them.
Since ALA is such an inefficient source of DHA and EPA, you can’t rely on it alone to fulfill your needs. That’s why most experts emphasize the importance of eating foods like fish and eggs, which contain DHA and EPA.
However, research suggests few Americans actually eat the recommended amounts of omega-3s. Unless you’re going out of your way to eat omega-3s (and EPA and DHA in particular) pretty much every day, chances are you’re falling short, too.
The Omega-6 Issue
Eating too few omega-3s isn’t our only omega issue: Eating too many omega-6 fatty acids (which is common in the standard American diet) can also offset the benefits of eating omega-3s. Omega-6s, which support growth and development, brain function, and reproductive health, and more, do contribute to our health; however, because the vegetable oils used in just about every processed food Americans eat contain omega-6s, we consume far too many.
“Studies have shown that omega-6’s, although essential, are more pro-inflammatory, while omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory,” says Filemon. “Over-consumption of omega-6 fatty acids can prevent the body from using the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.”
Research suggests that the ideal ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s consumed is less than four to one. Most Americans, though, consume a ratio closer to 20 to one. Without seriously slashing our omega-6 intake, we benefit little from the omega-3s we consume.
What’s At Stake With Omega-3 Deficiency
Consuming too few omega-3s—or too few omega-3s compared to omega-6s—comes with big consequences.
“Deficiency in DHA, specifically, can lead to a decrease in the brain’s ability to function optimally,” says Filemon. People with omega-3 deficiencies may also experience reduced vision and immunity, and even skin issues.
Low levels of omega-3s have also been associated with increased risk for certain chronic diseases, like coronary heart disease (the leading cause of death in the United States).
How To Optimize Your Omega-3 Intake
Before you even worry about eating more omega-3s, slash your omega-6 intake by avoiding processed foods—especially fast food—as much as possible. Even packaged foods marketed as ‘healthy’ often contain omega-6 oils, so keep an eye out for ingredients like soybean and sunflower oil on labels.
From there, try to eat 3.5 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) of cooked fish, such as salmon, trout, tuna, or Pollock, twice a week. If you’re not a big enough fan of fish, supplementation is a good option.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, load up on plant-based foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds, and also consider adding a supplement to your routine.
Most fish oil supplements contain about 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA a pop, while vegan omega-3 supplements, which are made from algae, can provide up to a few hundred milligrams of EPA and/or DHA per serving. Ora’s Nothing Fishy Here Vegan Omega-3 Spray, for example, provides 600 milligrams of DHA.
Just talk to your doctor before taking all the omega-3s you can get your hands on—high doses may interact with certain medications.