By now, you know that omega-3s are important for your health—and that you probably don’t eat enough fatty fish to meet your needs. However, if you have certain health concerns or dietary restrictions, your shortcomings may be, well, extra short. Here, two dietitians dish on the people who need more omega-3s—and why.
What Are Omega-3s, Again?
Omega-3 fatty acids are fats we get from our diet, and come in three forms: EPA, DHA, and ALA.
EPA and DHA, the two best-known omega-3s, are found in fatty fish—like salmon, tuna, and sardines—and algae. ALA, meanwhile, is found in plant foods, like walnuts, flax seeds, and hemp seeds, says Jonathan Valdez, RDB, CDN, founder of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Our body uses EPA and DHA efficiently. However, it can only convert about one to five percent of the ALA we consume into EPA—and even less into DHA, Valdez says.
Omega-3s And Our Health
Research has long acknowledged the importance of omega-3s for our health.
Traditionally lauded for their heart health benefits, “omega-3s support the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, improve the contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and normalize heart rate,” says Valdez.
Since DHA is concentrated in the retina, omega-3s are also important for eye health, says dietitian Isabel Smith, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. (They also prevent eye dryness.)
Related: You’ve Heard About Omega-3s—Here’s What You Should Know About Omega-6s
Plus, many of omega-3s’ cardiovascular benefits also apply to the brain, as well, says Smith. EPA and DHA are well-known for supporting the development of babies’ brains. Since these fats also support cellular signaling and nutrient absorption, they may support cognitive function, as well.
Who Needs Extra Omega-3s?
Though we don’t have clear guidelines for how many omega-3s we need every day (like we do for vitamins and minerals), the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume at least eight ounces of seafood a week to achieve ample omega-3 intake.
The Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that experts recommend the average person strives for 250 to 500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per day. (For reference, a four-ounce serving of salmon provides about 1,000 milligrams.)
That said, people with certain lifestyles and health concerns may benefit from increasing their omega-3 intake.
1. Vegetarians And Vegans
“Because vegetarians and vegans restrict their intake of seafood, their EPA and DHA may be lower,” says Valdez.
Plant-eaters may consume plenty of ALA. However, genetic factors, sex, and age impact our already-inefficient conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, Valdez explains. In many cases, regularly eating ALA-containing foods isn’t enough to meet omega-3 needs.
Related: 7 Protein Sources For Vegetarians
The Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends men and women consume 1.6 and 1.1 grams of ALA per day, respectively. (For reference, a serving of walnuts contains about 2.5 grams of this plant-based omega.)
2. People with Coronary Heart Disease
“Populations with documented coronary heart disease may need more omega-3s than the average person,” says Valdez.
People with documented coronary heart disease should aim for one gram of combined EPA and DHA per day, Valdez says.
3. Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women
Given the crucial role omega-3s play in fetal development, The Mayo Clinic recommends women who are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding increase their omega-3 intake from the average eight ounces a week to 12 ounces per week.
Related: When Should Women Start Taking Prenatal Vitamins?
Because of concerns about the mercury contamination of many fish, these women should take extra care to get their omega-3s from low-mercury sources, like salmon and shrimp. Meanwhile, they should avoid larger fish (which have more potential mercury contamination), like swordfish and tuna.
How To Increase Omega-3 Intake
Smith and Valdez both recommend working with a dietitian to determine your individual omega-3 needs. They can also help you create a plan for upping your intake.
Valdez typically takes a food-first approach by increasing your weekly servings of fatty fish or ALA-containing nuts and seeds.
If you don’t eat fish (or are concerned about mercury) or can’t meet your needs with plant-based sources alone, you can up your omega-3 intake with a supplement.
Smith likes Nordic Naturals’ Algae Omega, which provides 180 milligrams of EPA and 320 milligrams of DHA. Another quality option: Vthrive Premium Wild Alaskan Fish Oil with Vitamin D3, which provides 825 milligrams of EPA and 275 of DHA.
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