Understanding Omega-3 Fats

by in Healthy Tips, March 6, 2009

salmon with brown sugar
Your body can’t make them, so the only way to get omega-3 fats is to eat them. Here’s why they are so important and how to make sure you are getting enough.

Health Benefits
Omega 3s (as they’re known for short) are “good” polyunsaturated fats. They are important for growth and brain function as well as heart health because they help lower triglycerides and total cholesterol. A diet full of omega 3s also has been linked to improved immunity and a reduced risk of high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and Rheumatoid Arthritis. That all sounds good, no?

There are three types of omega-3 fats. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are most commonly found in cold-water fish (more on food sources below). ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is the omega-3 fat found in plants. The tricky part is, your body must convert ALA to EPA and DHA in order to get the fats’ health benefits. Unfortunately, this is an inefficient process, and you’d have to eat unrealistic amounts of ALA food sources. Whichever type, omega-3 fats come from nutritious, whole foods that bring a variety of other nutrients — protein, vitamins and minerals — to your daily nutrition landscape.

Sources of Omega 3
Good sources of EPA and DHA are cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines (salmon and sardines are typically low in mercury as well). ALA is found in canola oil, soy products such as soybean oil and tofu, flaxseeds, walnuts and in some leafy green veggies (for example, kale). Food companies have been adding extra omega 3 to some foods too — juicesbuttery spreads to name a couple. Check labels to see which kind of omega 3 they contain.

Omega-3 supplements are also an option; they are made from fish oil, flaxseed or marine algae oil. When considering a supplement, remember these guidelines:

  • Take with food to avoid a fishy aftertaste or digestive problems (read: fishy burping – yuck!)
  • Avoid large mega-doses unless prescribed by a doctor — you risk smelling like fish and others WILL notice!
  • Supplements will not provide you with the other nutrients found in omega-3 rich foods.

Getting Enough
Eat a diet rich in all 3 types of omega-3 fats. Experiment with healthy salmon recipes and try to get two servings of omega 3-rich fish per week. An example of a serving would be 6 ounces raw or 4 to 5 ounces of canned or cooked salmon. Check out the American Heart Association’s list of omega-3 fish. To get some ALA, cook with canola oil, top oatmeal with ground flaxseed, add tofu to stir-fries or sprinkle walnuts on yogurt or salads.

Omega 3-rich recipes to try:

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Comments (46)

  1. tracy says:

    my doctor told me to take flax seed but i found out i was allergic to it. Is there any thing else i can take? I’m taking Levothyroxine for my thyroid is there any vitamins i can take that wont interfere with it?

  2. Dana White says:

    Hi Tracy –
    There are plenty of other omega-3 foods you can eat if you’re allergic to flax. Salmon and walnuts are a great place to start. If you choose to get more omega-3 from a supplement (such as marine algae or fish oil) check out the specific product with your doctor to make sure it won’t interfere with your medications.

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