Often hyped as the world's healthiest fat, omega-3 fatty acids are a collection of polyunsaturated fats that include eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are essential fatty acids, meaning we are unable to make them on our own and have to obtain them from our diet.
Omega-3s are a chief component of all cell membranes and have been touted to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, lower blood pressure, and reduce symptoms of depression, ADHD and joint pain. They are proposed to work by reducing the inflammatory response by our body, therefore helping to control inflammation in the joints, bloodstream and tissues. Another benefit of the omega-3 fatty acids is they can help to balance out one other type of polyunsaturated fat in our diet – the omega-6 fatty acids. Including too much omega-6 in our diet might increase our risk of heart attack and stroke, and we tend to take in a lot of omega-6 through processed foods. Researchers say that we should aim for a ratio of one part omega-6 to four parts omega-3. The normal American diet is about 20 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3, so we have our work cut out for us.
Omega-3 can be attained from several different dietary sources, and with careful planning most of us can attain the quantity needed through dietary sources. Research seems to vary on the recommendations, but most conclude 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily is adequate. The best sources include coldwater fish (such as salmon, herring and tuna), various fresh fruits and vegetables, and some nuts, including flaxseed and walnuts. Aim to include one dietary source of omega-3 each day. A few of the best sources include:
1 cup spaghetti squash 121 mg
1 cup spinach 170 mg}
1 cup edamame 1,029 mg
1/4 cup walnuts 627 mg
3 ounce salmon 1991 mg
1 Tbsp flaxseed 1,597 mg
If possible, food sources are always best for nutrients, as foods contain numerous other benefits to our health. But for those non-fish lovers, supplements might be beneficial. Fish oil is used in supplements, but for vegetarians or those allergic to fish there are vegetarian supplements that contain these essential fatty acids as well.
Jennifer Burton, a registered dietitian, works for the McConnell Heart Health Center.