Since the "low-fat" diet craze thankfully took a backseat a few years ago (thanks for that, keto), the healthy fats in our diets have finally started to get more of the attention and appreciation they deserve. And when it comes to healthy fats, perhaps none are better known—or better understood—than omega-3s.
You might associate omega-3s with a big chunk of salmon or another fatty fish (they are, after all, the reason that dietitians, the American Heart Association, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating fish at least twice per week as a baseline starting point). But whether you can't get enough of your go-to spicy salmon roll, have a hard time incorporating seafood into your diet, or follow a vegan or vegetarian diet that doesn't include fish at all, omega-3s—and their many benefits—should definitely be on your radar.
Though omega-3s are often touted for supporting heart health, the reality is your brain, eyes, joints, and so much more depend on an ample supply of these important fats.* Here's what you need to know about the different sources of omega-3s, the variety of health benefits they offer, and how you can make sure you're getting your fill on the regular.*
What are omega-3s?
In case you need a little background info here: Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. The plant-derived omega-3 ALA is essential, which means that it has a daily nutritional requirement and you have to get it from either food or supplements because the body can't produce it on its own.
Marine-sourced omega-3s EPA and DHA are considered "conditionally essential" because your body can technically synthesize them from ALA (assuming you consume ALA). But it's not that simple. Science repeatedly demonstrates that the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is very low. This is where food and supplements come in.
Here's more info on each of the three major types (most well researched) of omega-3s:
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Found in many different kinds of fish and even plant-based sources like algae (algal oil), this omega-3 supports heart, joint, and whole-body health, but is famous for its brain and eye benefits.* "It's associated with neurological function and is mostly linked with memory, learning ability, and long-term cognitive health," explains dietitian Libby Mills R.D., LDN, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.*
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Considered the other "main" type of marine-sourced omega-3, EPA is associated with many of the most well-known health benefits omega-3s are touted for, including cardiovascular health (lipids, blood pressure, vascular function) and a healthy inflammatory response, according to Mills.* You'll find it mainly in those fatty fish (but more on food later).
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This omega-3 is unique in that it is only found in plant-based sources like certain seeds (hello, flax) and nuts. Though the body converts some ALA to EPA or DHA, it's an incredibly inefficient process at only about 5%, Mills notes. Still, ALA is typically the primary omega-3 in vegan and fish-free diets. Research has linked it with brain and mood benefits.*
The widespread benefits of omega-3s.
Because omega-3s have been on the radar of researchers and health practitioners since long before keto made fats cool again, they have decades and decades of scientific study into their many roles in the body that confirm just how important they are for a variety of aspects of our health and well-being.*
Research continues to uncover more about the different types of omega-3s and their mechanisms of action—but, for now, here are a few of the most notable and well-established benefits of omega-3s to take note of:*
Heart health is one of omega-3s' original claims to fame—and eating fatty fish a couple of times a week or more has long been linked with cardiovascular wellness.
While both EPA and DHA are heart essentials, EPA, specifically, seems to get the cardiovascular limelight especially.* In fact, research suggests these omega-3 fats support heart health in a variety of ways, such as supporting healthy levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood).* Ample amounts of omega-3s in the body have also been linked with healthy blood pressure and circulation.*
By lowering blood pressure, consuming EPA and DHA combined may even reduce the risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) per the FDA.† (FYI: One serving of mbg's omega-3 potency+ provides 1.5 grams of EPA and DHA, a dose potent enough to support these benefits.)*
Brain health & cognition.
Because of its role in the development of the central nervous system (brain comes to most people's mind first, but this extensive network also includes our eyes and neuronal connections throughout the body!), DHA is a key nutrient during pregnancy, and remains important for supporting infant and pediatric brain health thereafter.*
In fact, one 2018 study found that a mother's DHA levels during pregnancy had the strongest association with her infant's problem-solving skills at 12 months, with researchers noting that the association was even stronger after controlling for level of maternal education.
However, its brain benefits aren't limited to these early stages of life. In fact, DHA has also been shown in scientific literature to promote cognition throughout the lifespan, and particularly later in life.* And while DHA might be the MVP here, EPA is not to be ignored for cognitive function and mood support; these 2 omega-3s work in symphony.*
Healthy eyes & vision.
Another crucial aspect of our health (and one that seems to be both discussed less frequently and often unhelpfully reduced to "just eat carrots") is our vision. EPA and DHA, but DHA specifically, works to ensure that certain cells in the retina function properly and can also help the eyes combat oxidative stress, making it a must-have for overall eye health and visual acuity.*
DHA is also crucial for a baby's eye development—yet another reason to get enough of it during and after pregnancy.* Aim for at least 300 milligrams of DHA daily during the perinatal (pregnancy and lactation) period.
One of our more recent findings around omega-3s: They're also mental well-being powerhouses. Though researchers aren't yet clear on the specific mechanisms orchestrated by EPA and DHA, they have shown that omega-3s have a part to play in supporting our mood balance and resilience.*
An interesting area that requires more research to fully understand: Inadequate intake of omega-3s during the postpartum period has been associated with lower mood, according to the American Pregnancy Association—and other research suggests that many women indeed have a low intake of omega-3s throughout pregnancy.*
Studies have established that omega-3 fatty acids possess potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping the body to strike an important balance and combat oxidative stress.* In addition to these actions, EPA and DHA have been known to interact with the immune system for some decades now, and more recent research suggests that omega-3s also work within the immune system by acting as signaling molecules, with EPA, DHA, and ALA all affecting immune activation and response.*
Though perhaps not as prominent a topic as heart health (although maybe it should be), there is some evidence that omega-3s can support musculoskeletal health in people of all ages—and especially women—by helping to regulate bone turnover and contributing to calcium balance.*
How many omega-3s do you need?
When it comes to ALA, the National Academy of Medicine offers pretty specific recommendations for how much we need, recommending that adult women consume about 1.1 grams per day (and 1.4 and 1.3 grams when pregnant and lactating, respectively). Adult men, meanwhile, need 1.6 grams per day.
For EPA and DHA, though, guidelines become a bit more nuanced and personalized. For 20 years, the American Heart Association has recommended adults consume at least two servings of fish (i.e., oily fish) every week based on cardiovascular research.
Indeed, the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 ounces (or approximately two servings) of fish per week in order to average an intake of EPA and DHA equivalent to about 500 milligrams combined per day.
However, that's a foundational baseline (that 90% of Americans are failing to hit, mind you). Other people may wish to increase their fish or omega-3 consumption beyond this low threshold.
For example, research suggests that 1,000 milligrams (aka 1 gram) and up of EPA and DHA per day offer proportionately greater heart-health benefits, which is important for those focused on that area of health to keep in mind. This higher potency goal is equivalent to consuming about one serving of fish per day (depending on the fish species). For example, one serving of anchovies delivers 1,500 mg of EPA and DHA.
Can you get too many omega-3s?
Since the large majority of our nation falls short on omega-3s when relying on diet alone, researchers suggest that supplementation is a practical and economical strategy to help American adults meet their needs. After all, healthy levels of omega-3s (i.e., omega-3 status) translate into whole-body health implications that should not be taken lightly.*
That said, it is technically possible to consume more of just about any healthy thing, whether it's a nutrient or water. The primary concern you'll hear (read on to see if it's rooted in current science) from health practitioners is that extremely high omega-3 intake (i.e., many grams of EPA plus DHA consumed regularly each day) may contribute to blood thinning and reduce blood clotting. This side effect would be relevant to folks taking blood-thinning medications or undergoing procedures, for example.
That's the concern, but in fact, mbg's director of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, says there's reason to calm your fears. She explains, "The old wives' tale that many health care practitioners are guilty of propagating to this every day is that fish oil thins your blood. The fact is, a quick look at the body of epidemiologic and clinical trial research over the past 30 years demonstrates, from multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses, that there is, in fact, no increased risk for bleeding when people consume a total daily amount of EPA + DHA as low as 500 milligrams and as high as 10 grams (10,000 milligrams!)."
Ferira adds, "I'm talking about 80-plus research studies demonstrating the safety of low, medium, and high levels of daily EPA + DHA consumption. It's time somebody debunked this myth that is genuinely scaring people away from using a truly helpful tool for whole-body health; I'm talking about fish oil supplementation."*
The best sources of omega-3s.
Now, where to focus your omega-3 efforts, you ask? Here are your best-bet sources:
Fish & other seafood.
It's no secret that fatty fish like anchovies, salmon, wild mackerel, herring, rainbow trout, sardines, and wild or farmed bluefin tuna are the best sources of omega-3s, specifically EPA and DHA, you can eat.
You can get between 500 and 2,300 milligrams of EPA and DHA from just 3 ounces of these oily fish (i.e., one serving), according to USDA fatty acid analyses of each fish species (for example, here is the nutritional breakdown, including those healthy fats, for one serving of anchovies).
If you're not the biggest fan of fish, Kelly recommends improving the taste profile by using marinades (she likes Primal Kitchen's barbecue and teriyaki options) to switch up the flavors a bit.
Other types of seafood are also rich in EPA and DHA, too. Mussels and oysters, for example, offer between 500 and 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA per serving, Mills notes. Meanwhile, wild crab, flounder, grouper, pollock, snapper, and canned tuna contain between 200 and 500 milligrams of these important omega-3s per serving.
Algae, algae oil & seaweed.
Ever wonder where your favorite varieties of seafood get their omega-3s from? Yep: algae and seaweed, which are the only plant-based sources of DHA out there, explains Mills. You might munch on seaweed snacks or use algal oils in salad dressings (or supplement form; more on that soon) to up your intake.
Certain nuts & seeds.
Sea plants aside, most plant-based sources of omega-3s contain ALA. Ground flaxseed provides 1.6 grams of ALA per serving, while chia seeds contain an incredible 7 grams per tablespoon, Mills says. Hemp seeds, meanwhile, offer 0.9 grams of ALA per serving.
In the nut category, walnuts are top; just one 1-ounce serving packs 2.5 grams of ALA.
Unsurprisingly, oils made from these nuts and seeds are also rich in ALA. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil, for example, offers a whopping 7.3 grams of ALA, according to Mills.
If you don't take in enough omega-3s through your diet alone (which, remember, research suggests is pretty likely, since 90% of us aren't even consuming the baseline two-fish-per-day recommendation), an omega-3 supplement—whether in the form of high-quality fish oil or algal oil (more expensive, and skewed high in DHA)—can ensure you meet your daily needs.
Just how much you supplement, of course, depends on individual health factors and priorities, such as heart health needs or key life stages.* "Omega-3 supplements are also something I look at right away when speaking to clients who are pregnant or are interested in becoming pregnant," Kelly adds.
Since contaminants from the ocean like heavy metals are a consideration in whole fish and fish oils, it's very important to look for a quality product that prioritizes purity testing, to ensure the lowest levels possible. You'll also want a brand that takes steps to ensure oxidation parameters are minimized in their fish or algal oils.
Ferira shares this rule-of-thumb: "The more clear the fish oil and the less smelly (i.e., fishy), the better. This indicates purity, freshness, and high standards for things like oxidation." She goes on to say, "you'll also want a product that is authentic and confirms their fish species and origin, so you know what you're getting and whether it's sustainably sourced."
Another feature to look for is potency since efficacy is directly tied to the potency (or dose) of active ingredients. Check your label to ensure your supplement contains the amounts of EPA and DHA you're looking for.
As Ferira explains, "It's not the total fish oil or omega-3 concentrate you're after; turn over the bottle and count the total EPA plus DHA. That is the number that matters and that science has researched." (You'll get 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA in each serving—just two softgels—of omega-3 potency+ from mindbodygreen.)
The essential polyunsaturated fatty acids we know as omega-3s are powerhouse players for so many aspects of health, including everything from our cardiovascular function and vision to our cognition, joints, and immune health.*
Though a variety of plant and animal foods provide omega-3s—namely EPA, DHA, and ALA—most people don't meet their minimum needs through diet alone, much less the levels tied to incremental health benefits.* For this reason, adding a high-potency omega-3 supplement with robust quality standards to your daily nutrition routine is often a simple but necessary solution for upping your intake, which is particularly important if you have specific health goals or priorities (like caring for your heart, mind, vision, etc.) you're investing in for the long term.*
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Lauren Del Turco, CPT is a freelance health and wellness writer, editor, and content strategist who covers everything from nutrition to mental health to spirituality. Del Turco is also an ACE-certified personal trainer. She graduated from The College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing. When she’s not on deadline, you’ll find Del Turco hiking with her dogs, experimenting with new plant-based recipes, or curled up with a book and tea.