Five Top Tips on Omega-3s

What is all the fuss about Omega-3s?

Many people have heard of Omega-3 fatty acids, but what are they and why should you be concerned about having omega-3s in your diet?  Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, which means they have more than one double bond between carbon atoms, and the first double bond is at the third carbon from the end, hence Omega-3.  There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, 18 carbons and 3 double bonds), commonly found in plant oils; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, 20 carbons and 5 double bonds) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22 carbons and 6 double bonds), commonly found in fish and marine oils.  DHA and EPA are made from ALA in limited amounts in the liver, and therefore we usually require additional amounts from food. 

TOP TIP # 1 - Food sources of Omega-3s

Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, flaxseeds (linseeds), chia seeds, and oils such as canola and soybean are high in ALA.  Whereas high amounts of DHA and EPA are found in oily fish, fish oils, krill oils and some eggs.  Interestingly, they are originally synthesized by microalgae; phytoplankton eat the microalgae, and then the fish eat the phytoplankton. The Omega-3 fatty acids accumulate in the fish, which we eat or extract the oil from.

TOP TIP # 2 - Health Benefits of Omega-3s

After digestion, Omega-3 fatty acids are absorbed by our body and go on to form part of the cell membrane, which is a structural component of our cells.  High amounts of DHA are found in our brain, retinas and sperm.  Omega-3s also provide energy for our body, and help form eicosanoids which are signaling molecules involved in our cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune and endocrine systems.  Research into health benefits has mostly focused around the prevention of some diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

TOP TIP # 3 - Fish and mercury

Seafood contains varying levels of methyl mercury (a toxic heavy metal), depending on the size of the fish and where it is caught.  Mercury gets into fish due to airborne smoke from coal burning factories, which settles in lakes, rivers and oceans.  Mercury accumulates as it moves up the food chain, so small amounts are found in phytoplankton, and increasing amounts in small fish and bigger fish.  Mercury can affect brain development, and therefore exposure is risky for pregnant women and young children.  They should avoid mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish (to name a few), ease up on tuna and sushi made with risky fish – if in doubt smaller is better.  Supplements usually contain very little or no mercury, as it is removed during processing.

TOP TIP # 4 - Recommended Dietary Intakes

To reduce the risk of chronic disease, the aim is to consume about 610 mg/day of EPA and DHA for men, and 430 mg/day for women (1).  For people with high triglyceride levels, you can consider supplements with 1 g of combined EPA and DHA daily (in addition to standard therapy).  The best way to reach these targets is through 2 - 3 servings of fish and seafood (150 g) per week, 1 serving of higher risk fish a week (amounts vary for pregnant women), and 1 – 3 servings of nuts and seeds a week.  If you cannot eat fish, the Heart Foundation (US) recommends the use of supplements (2).

TOP TIP # 5 - Omega-3s and Athletes

Omega-3s can also be taken as an anti-inflammatory, and many athletes regularly consume Omega-3s to assist with reduction of exercise-induced inflammation post training.  The exact amounts are not known, but in some studies show that up to 1.8 grams of Omega-3s daily can reduce inflammatory markers post exercise 24 and 48 hours later (3).

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3.     Tartibian, B., Maleki, B. H., & Abbasi, A. (2011). Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation attenuates inflammatory markers after eccentric exercise in untrained men. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 21(2), 131-137.

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