Updated: Feb 28, 2021
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The human body can synthesize almost all the types of fats it needs to stay healthy. This is not the case for omega-3 fatty acids, a key member of the polyunsaturated fats family! Omega-3s are ESSENTIAL, meaning the body cannot make it and it MUST be consumed from food!
Why are Omega-3s so Important?
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in cellular function and in maintaining heart health, brain health, joint health, kidney function, eye health, and skin health. These fats are a fundamental part of the cell membranes throughout our entire body and help control the function of our receptors within these membranes. This means that omega-3s are inherently involved in hormone production, blood clot regulation, arterial contraction, and inflammation. Benefits of consuming these essential fatty acids include: easing inflammation, ensuring a steady beating heart, and preventing clot (plaque) formation on the arterial walls. Because of this, omega-3 fats can help prevent heart disease, stroke, lupus, eczema, arthritis, and certain cancers.
The strongest benefit from these essential fatty acids involves heart health and prevention of heart disease, specifically thwarting the effects of atherosclerosis as well as preventing potentially fatal erratic heart rhythms. According to the CDC, an estimated 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths! In addition, heart arrhythmias cause an estimated 500,000+ cardiac deaths each year in the United States! That’s why it is SO IMPORTANT to maintain a healthy diet, one that includes omega-3 fatty acids.
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are 3 important types of omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, EPA, and DHA. The human body uses ALA primarily for energy. It also acts as a precursor for the synthesis of longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), more specifically, EPA and DHA.
EPA and DHA are an important part of cardiovascular health and normal neurological development for fetuses and newborns. The body naturally converts short-chain ALAs into these longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. However, it is important to note that this conversion is restricted and limited, thus, humans must include sources of pre-formed long-chain EPA and DHA into their diets. Most Americans get enough ALA (primarily plant-derived) from the foods they eat, so it is important to include direct long-chain fatty acid sources to attain maximum benefits from omega-3s. So where can we find direct sources of EPA and DHA?
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Unique plants that contain direct sources of long-chain EPA and DHA fatty acids include seaweed and algae. This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians as they are the only two non-fish sources that contain these fatty acids.
Short-chain ALA fatty acids are readily available in a wide variety of plant foods: walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, edamame/soybeans, and plant oils (soybean, flaxseed, canola). Other green leafy vegetables and beans also contain small amounts of ALA.
How Much Omega-3 Do We Need?
Evidence indicates that it is highly beneficial to consume fatty fish and/or algae 2x/week to attain maximum benefits from its DHA and EPA fatty acids. As a reminder, these benefits include heart disease and inflammatory disease prevention, supported vision and neurological development, and overall optimal tissue function.
Most people get enough ALA through their diets, as we need a very minimal amount to achieve is maximum benefits. We need about 0.5-1.5 grams of ALA per day depending on age, sex, and pregnancy. For a better idea of how much we need, 1 tablespoon of hemp or flaxseed is more than enough to achieve your daily dose. Other ALA plant-sources can also easily meet your daily short-chain omega-3 needs!
What About Supplements?
Research on omega-3 supplementation is complex and somewhat inconclusive. It is not a simple yes or no or one-size-fits-all answer. Some individuals can benefit from supplementation depending on outlying variables such as dietary preferences, allergies, or certain medical pre-dispositions.
Here’s what to know:
Getting your omega-3 fatty acids from the actual fish is better for your health than supplementation. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids from the fish, algae, or seaweed itself can not only provide these essential fatty acids, but it also has the potential to replace less healthful foods in your diet, such as red meat, processed foods, or refined grains.
By attaining your omega-3s from whole foods, such as fish, seaweed, and algae, you also inherently consume the associated vitamins and minerals that naturally occur within that food. Supplements lack these additional beneficial nutrients.
Algae-based supplements are an option if you are a vegetarian or allergic to fish.
High doses can pose a risk in some cases.
According to the NIH, research indicates that omega-3 supplements don’t reduce the risk of heart disease. However, people who eat seafood 1-4x/week are less likely to die of heart disease.
See here for more information on omega-3 supplementation and what’s right for you.
What About Contaminants?
For those worried about fish contaminants, studies show that the benefit from EPA and DHA negates the risk from mercury and other contaminants. In addition, by getting EPA and DHA directly from algae and/or seaweed, a source at the bottom of the food chain, there is less worry for pollutant contamination.
Here at KIN, we pride ourselves on providing a full spectrum of unbiased research-based evidence. In light of this, it is important to address a very significant study called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study that does not fall in line with the above content. The findings from this study showed that short-chain fatty acids (ALA) convert into enough long-chain fatty acids (DHA and EPA) to obtain maximum benefit. Women (and less so men) following vegan diets (ALA consumption) actually had significantly more long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) in their blood when compared with fish-eaters, meat-eaters, and ovo-lacto vegetarians. This study goes on to say that one reason fish-eaters have fewer heart attacks may stem from the fact that they're eating fish in place of red meat or processed meats like sausage, bacon, or ham (which contain bad saturated fat and salt). If further research is done and can confirm these findings, it could potentially indicate sufficient conversion of ALA and challenge current fish requirements.
It is essential to consume omega-3 fatty acids from a variety of sources. This includes short-chain fatty acids (primarily plant-derived) along with direct long-chain fatty acids (primarily fatty fish and/or algae-derived) as both ALA and EPA/DHA are involved in increased heart health and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, in addition to various other diseases. Most Americans get enough ALA from the plant foods they eat, so it is important to consciously include fish, algae, or seaweed in your diet to obtain EPA and DHA for maximum benefit from all omega-3 essential fatty acids. As in most cases, and as consistently taught in both KIN’s nutrition and food sustainability curriculum, variety is key.