You’ve heard us tout the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for years, from their ability to boost your brainpower to their knack for protecting your ticker. But what exactly are these fats, and what’s their big lifesaving secret? Consider this your quick guide to omega-3s:
What Are They?
Here’s a quick science primer: Omega-3 fatty acids and their cousins, omega-6s and omega-9s, are polyunsaturated fats. Two polyunsaturated fats—linoleic, an omega-6, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3—are considered essential. “Our bodies can’t make polyunsaturated fatty acids,” says Stephen Smith, Ph.D, a professor of meat science at Texas A&M University. “We must have those in the diet for growth and normal health.”
Two important omega-3s found in fish—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—are considered conditionally essential. The hitch: Your body can make them, but sometimes you don’t make enough.
Related: Omega Fatty Acids - 7 Myths Debunked
Where Are They Found?
You can find ALA in certain plant-based foods, especially nuts and seeds and oils made from nuts and seeds. The average American takes in most of his ALA from salad dressing, chicken dishes, grain-based desserts (like cake), pizza, and bread, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That’s because of how often you tend to eat those foods.
Some particularly good sources of ALA include cold-pressed flaxseed oil at 7 grams (g) per tablespoon, dried chia seeds (5 g per ounce), black walnuts (3 g per cup), canola oil (1.3 per tablespoon), and soybean oil (0.9 g per tablespoon).
Most of your EPA and DHA intake comes from fish, chicken, shrimp, and eggs. Some particularly good sources of both EPA and DHA include:
• Cooked Atlantic herring (1.3 g of EPA and 1.5 g of DHA per fillet)
• Smoked Alaskan sockeye salmon (1 g of EPA and 1.6 g of DHA per filet)
• Cooked Chinook salmon (0.9 g of EPA and 0.6 g of DHA per 3 ounces)
• Cooked sablefish or Black Cod (0.7 g of EPA and 0.8 g of DHA per 3 ounces)
• Cooked Spanish mackerel (0.4 g of EPA and 1.4 g of DHA per fillet)
What Do They Do?
Omega-3s are famous for their anti-inflammatory properties. Just a few of their potential benefits:
A lower diabetes risk. A study in Diabetes Care showed that men with the highest blood levels of EPA, DHA, and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), another fish omega-3, had a 33 percent lower risk of diabetes than those with the lowest levels.
A better heart rhythm. In a study in Circulation, people with the highest blood levels of EPA, DHA, and DPA were 29 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder.
Healthier blood vessels. Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found people with the highest amount of ALA intake had a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
A happier brain. In a Japanese study, people with the highest ALA intake were 53 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression.
How Much Should You Eat?
Eat fatty fish regularly. “You can get the amount of recommended EPA and DHA if you have 3 to 6 ounces of fatty fish at least 3 times a week,” says Alan Aragon, M.S., a nutrition advisor.
The World Health Organization recommends that a minimum of 0.5 percent of your daily energy calories should come from ALA. If you eat 2,000 calories, that’s about 1.1 grams per day. A half cup of walnuts would cover it. Aragon puts a handful in his smoothie every morning.