If you visit the supermarket regularly, you must have come across all types of foods labeled with ‘contains omega-3.’ No other fat has gained as much popularity as omega-3.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Usually found in foods like fish and flaxseeds and dietary supplements like fish oil, they help improve cardiovascular health, fight depression and prevent osteoporosis.
Read on to learn more about omega-3 fatty acids, their health benefits and the food that are rich in these healthy fats.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are essential fatty acids, meaning that our body can not produce them and that we have to get them from our diet.
The three-main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid DHA).
Omega-3 fatty acids are needed for several vital functions in the body, and they provide many health benefits.
Health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
1. Improve cardiovascular health
Omega-3 fatty acids improve heart health in numerous ways. They help reduce the levels of triglycerides significantly (1). Omega-3 also helps lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure (2).
Several studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids can raise the levels of HDL cholesterol in the body (3).
2. Help fight depression and anxiety
People with depression may have low levels of chemicals like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in their blood. Eating food rich in these omega-3 acids, help ease the symptoms of depression.
One study even found EPA to be more effective than the prescription drug prosaic in dealing with depression (8).
3. Prevent macular degeneration
Many studies have shown that omega-3 helps prevent macular degeneration in adults (9). DHA, a type of omega-3, is naturally concentrated in the retina of the eye and it helps promotes healthy retinal function.
When we do not get enough DHA in our diet, it can lead to disease of the retina.
4. Can reduce the symptoms of ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) is characterized by poor attention and hyperactivity. Several studies have found that children and adults with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3 in their bodies as compared to people who don’t have ADHD. Taking omega-3 supplements can reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
5. May help prevent cancer
Omega 3 fatty acids can help lower the risk of various types of cancer like breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
Studies have shown that people who consume more omega 3 have a lower risk of colon cancer (12). Some studies have also shown that a high intake of marine omega-3 can reduce the risk of breast cancer (13).
6. Can reduce asthma risk
Omega-3 fatty acids contain anti-inflammatory nutrients which can reduce the risk of asthma. Asthma is one of the leading cause of death among children.
However, eating a diet rich in omega-3 can improve their resistance to asthma. Several studies have shown that consuming Omega-3 can reduce the risk of asthma (14).
7. Protect against osteoporosis and arthritis
Omega-3 fatty acids protect our bones from osteoporosis. They lower inflammation and increase our production of osteoblasts, which help build bones.
Several studies have shown that omega-3 play an essential role in improved bone health as it helps increase calcium in the bones (15).
Omega-3 also helps people with arthritis as it reduces pain and improves grip strength (16).
8. Can improve mental disorders
Research suggests that omega-3 can help treat mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Omega-3 plays a significant role in brain development and functioning.
It can reduce the frequency of mood swings and relapses in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders (17).
9. Help fight age-related mental decline
Omega-3 has an incredible impact on the brain. A diet rich in omega-3 can help prevent cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s (18).
Another study found that people who eat more fish have more grey matter in their brain (19).
10. Can ease menstrual pain
Many women have to endure abdominal discomfort and cramps every month during menstruation. Studies have shown that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 can help soothe this pain (20).
It also helps control hormonal fluctuations and improves mood.
A clinical trial on students of Babol University of Medical Sciences also found omega-3 to be more effective than ibuprofen in treating menstrual pain (21).
11. Help improve sleep
Omega-3 can help to regulate the levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that is released as a part of your stress response by your sympathetic response system. Norepinephrine is essential for the sleep patterns.
Low levels of fatty acids have been linked to sleep issues in children and sleep apnea in adults (22). Low levels of omega-3 have also been linked to low levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps you fall asleep (23).
According to studies, supplementing with omega-3 can improve the length and quality of sleep in both adults and children.
12. Help improve skin
Omega 3 fatty acids have many anti-inflammatory properties which help the skin against redness, swelling, irritation, eczema, and dermatitis as well.
DHA forms a structural part of the skin. It helps keep the cell membranes healthy, and this helps keep the skin moist and wrinkle free. Omega-3 also helps prevent acne and premature aging of the skin.
These fatty acids also help protect your skin from damage caused by sun exposure (24).
How much omega-3 should you take?
According to the American Heart Association, you can safely take up to 3 grams of omega-3 in the form of supplements. Taking more than 3 grams can increase the risk of bleeding.
The World Health Organisation and European Food Safety Authority, recommend that healthy adults should take 250 to 500 mg of EPA and DHA daily (26).
The American Heart Association recommends that we must eat fatty fish twice a week to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should take an additional amount of 200 mg of DHA (27).
The recommended intake of omega-3 also depends on your intake of omega-6. If your intake of omega-6 becomes less, then the recommended intake of omega-3 is also reduced (28).
Nowadays many foods come fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. The source of omega-3 like EPA and DHA in these foods is usually microalgae.
This microalga has a strong fishy aroma. So, most of these fortified foods have to undergo processing, to mask the taste and smell of microalgae.
This processing may change the fatty acid and antioxidant content in these foods. Which is why, it is better to opt for natural, whole food sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Here are some of the best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids (25).
- Atlantic mackerel ( 5134 mg in 100 grams)
- Salmon (2260 mg in 100 grams)
- Cod liver oil (2664 mg in one tablespoon)
- Walnuts (2664 mg in ¼ cup)
- Chia seeds (2457 mg in 1 tablespoon)
- Herring (1885 mg in 3 ounces)
- Flaxseeds (1597 mg in 1 tablespoon)
- Albacore tuna (1414 mg in 3 ounces)
- Whitefish (1363 mg in 3 ounces)
- Sardines (1363 mg in one can)
- Caviar (1086 mg in one tablespoon)
- Hemp Seeds (1000 mg in one tablespoon)
- Anchovies (951 mg in 3.75 ounces)
- Natto (428 mg in ¼ cup)
- Egg yolks (240 mg in half cup)
Are omega-3 supplements beneficial?
Though eating fatty fish that is rich in omega-3 is the best way to increase these beneficial fats in your diet, for people who do not eat fish, supplements can be helpful.
The omega-3 fish oil contains both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
There are many omega-3 supplements available in the markets. Not all of them are as effective. Some of them may even contain harmful compounds. Read the label of the supplement carefully and check for the following:
- Check if the supplements you are taking contain EPA and DHA. These are the most crucial omega-3 for your health.
- Check the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that each capsule contains.
- Some forms of omega-3 like free fatty acids (triglycerides and reformed triglycerides) and phospholipids get absorbed better than ethyl esters.
- Ensure that they are pure and genuine. Buy supplements that have GOED standard of purity or a ‘third party tested’ stamp on them.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can become rancid quickly. So always check the expiry date and smell the supplement to ensure that they do not have a foul smell.
- Buy supplements that are certified by the MSC or the Environmental Defence Fund.
Side effects of omega-3 foods
Omega 3 foods are generally considered safe, but some people can develop side effects if they take omega-3 supplements. The side effects of omega-3 include:
- Fish taste in the mouth
- Fishy breath
- Stomach pains or nausea
- Allergic reaction
- Changes in blood sugar levels
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids that are usually found in foods like fish and flaxseeds and dietary supplements like fish oil.
These fatty acids help improve heart health, prevent depression, help improve sleep and may also prevent certain cancers. Some of the best sources of omega-3 include oily fish like mackerel and salmon.
Chai seeds, cod liver oil and walnuts are some other foods that are rich in omega-3. Add these to your diet to enjoy the health benefits of omega-3.
However, make sure that you do not take more than 3 grams of omega-3 supplements, as they may lead to unpleasant side effects.