Why Omega-3 Fats are Essential for a Healthy Body and Mind: Nutritionist Tips

Confused about which fats are healthy and want to understand why omega-3 fats are an important part of a healthy diet? In this podcast episode and blog, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Lisa Henderson clears up the confusion with her simple, clear style. She gives a quick but thorough discussion of: their health benefits, the different types, which foods and supplements are good sources and how much you might aim to get each week. Listen or read – your choice!

What are they? Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fats that are widely considered to be a healthy type of fat and a better option than saturated fats. Having a moderate intake of fats in your overall diet is important for a balanced diet and also for weight management. Fats fill a variety of roles in the healthy functioning of your body, but all fats are high in calories. So, the Goldilocks rule applies for fats – you want a moderate amount that’s just right, not too little, not too much.

There are a few different types of omega 3s: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are like best buddies – they’re often found together! ALA is found in certain plant foods and a small proportion of ALA is transformed into EPA/DHA when it’s metabolized. All three of these are healthy fats and it’s a smart idea to include all of them in your diet on a regular basis. Eating them in place of foods that are high in saturated or trans fats would be a big step forward in boosting your health.

What are the health benefits?

  • Supports heart health, cardioprotective effects – reduces cardiovascular disease, decreases risk of heart attack or arrhythmia
  • Improves cholesterol and lowers triglycerides
  • Supports cognitive/brain health
  • Anti-inflammatory: decreases inflammation in the body (EPA)
  • Beneficial effects on mood and depression (especially EPA)
  • Essential for proper fetal development during pregnancy (EPA/DHA)
  • Healthy fats that your body can use as fuel
  • Possible benefits for: immune, eye and joint health

Which foods and supplements are good sources of omega 3 fats?

EPA/DHA:

  • Cold water fatty fish: salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, trout
  • Seafood: mussels, oysters, Dungeness crab
  • GO WILD! Wild sources of these varieties of fish and seafood tend to have higher levels of omega 3 fats.
  • Supplements: fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, algae oil (vegan); *buy a high-quality supplement from a trusted brand
  • Consider canned varieties – for convenience and to save money. Check out the aisle of your grocery store that has canned tuna – here you’ll also discover many of the varieties listed above. By the way, canned tuna is also a good source of omega 3s, but because it tends to be higher in mercury, you might limit it to once a week.

ALA:

  • Nuts/seeds: ground flaxseed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts
  • Oils: flaxseed oil, canola oil
  • Soybeans

How much omega 3 fats should I have daily/weekly?

*The recommendations below are for generally healthy people and for those that don’t have a fish or seafood allergy; if you’re on any medications or have any health conditions, check with your physician or other trusted health professional before taking a supplement.

  • ALA foods: include in your diet on a regular basis
  • EPA/DHA:
    • 1 – 2 grams (1000 – 2000 mg) daily
    • And/or: 8-12 ounces per week of fish/seafood that are good sources of omega 3s and low in mercury

Tip: Some people experience burping when taking a fish oil supplement due to a fishy taste. To avoid this, try a version that is flavored, such as with lemon.

Here are some trusted, helpful resources to help you find safe, sustainable foods that are rich in omega 3 fats. I was bummed to learn that Ahi Tuna is to be avoided. I’ll be choosing a different variety of fish for my next poke bowl!

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External, related resources:

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/

NRDC’s Smart Seafood Buying Guide: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide

FDA’s guide for eating fish for pregnancy/breastfeeding and for children: https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish