Omega-3 fatty acids are so important because they play a huge role in the "anti-inflammatory response" in our body. There are omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats. These two types of fats should have a delicate balance in our diets. The ratio should be 4:1, with a slightly larger amount of omega-6 fats. In the U.S. the average ratio is 10:1 and in some cases as high as 20:1 (1)
This imbalance of omega 6 to omega 3 fats has led to increasing inflammation and chronic disease. Chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on our health and lead to a wide variety of symptoms including weight gain, fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, joint pain, brain fog, skin conditions, and so much more.
Why Do We Need Omega 3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory fats and are extremely important in our body's ability to fight inflammation. Omega-3 has also been well studied in its benefits for heart health, mental health, memory, mood stability, weight management, bone health, and even asthma (1).
Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory fats that are also essential for our bodies and play a role in protecting our organs and tissues in times of injury, illness, or high stress. Omega-6 fats are found in a variety of foods like nuts, seeds, animal proteins, corn, and soy.
There needs to be a healthy balance in our bodies between Omega-6 and Omega-3. The recommended ratio is 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. In our Western diet the ratio is usually around 10:1, and in unhealthy diets 50:1 (2). This is why you'll hear me say over and over the importance of anti-inflammatory foods in our diet.
What foods are rich in omega-3 fats?
There are 3 types of omega-3 fats we can find in our diet. The three forms are ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are the forms that our cells and tissues utilize and what is studied for its health benefits. ALA is a natural plant form of omega-3 that our body needs to convert into the active cell forms EPA or DHA, which it can only do in small amounts.
3 Forms of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
ALA, alpha-linolenic acid
EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA, docosahexaenoic acid
ALA is found in plants like nuts and seeds (remember it is a fat, so it is found in high fat foods). ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body. Unfortunately our bodies are not very good at this conversion and research shows at best 20% of ALA is converted to EPA and 10% is converted to DHA (3). That leaves 70% of ALA (omega-3 fatty acid) not being converted in our bodies.
Plant sources of omega 3 ALA are still a great addition to your diet, but we don't want to rely on them for our full omega-3 intake.
Plant source omega-3 (ALA) foods include:
Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, and herring. Here are the amounts of omega-3 fats in 4 ounce portions of fish:
Salmon: 4.0 grams EPA and DHA
Mackerel: 3.0 grams EPA and DHA
Sardines: 2.2 grams EPA and DHA
Anchovies: 1.0 grams EPA and DHA
Small amounts in white fish, shellfish
Small amounts in grassfed meat, poultry, and eggs
Yes, sushi can count towards your omega-3 intake. Yay!
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, the adequate intake of omega-3s per day is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women, for women (4). It is recommended to eat two 4-oz. servings of fatty fish per week in order to get enough omega-3s to maintain a healthy balance in the body.
I recommend eating 3 servings of wild-caught fatty fish per week, or taking a fish oil supplement in order to maintain a healthy balance of inflammation in the body.
Should I take a fish oil supplement?
If you do not eat a minimum of two servings (4 oz. each) of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines per week then I recommend taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement. I also recommend an omega-3 fish oil supplement to anyone who has a chronic inflammatory condition or symptoms.
Fish Oil supplementation has been found helpful in improving health outcomes and risk in the following conditions. (5)
Age-Related Memory Decline
Depression and mood related disorders
Cardiovascular Disease, specifically lowering triglyceride levels
Rheumatoid Arthritis and other immune related conditions
What type of fish oil supplement should I take?
When choosing a fish oil supplement you want to look for a few things in order to ensure its quality and potency.
The fish oil is derived from smaller fish because they will contain less levels of mercury.
Make sure it is third-party tested to ensure all heavy metals, contaminants, PCBs, solvents, and pesticides are removed.
You are getting at least 1000 mg (1 gram) of EPA + DHA in your daily dose.
There are a few different sources of fish oil supplements. Omega-3 dietary supplements include fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and algal oil (a vegetarian source that comes from algae). They provide a wide range of doses and forms of omega-3s.
Again, check to see how many capsules or servings you need to take to meet at least 1000 mg EPA + DHA. Some brands will require 4-6 capsules to meet this dose, so you may not be saving money by choosing the lowest cost supplement.
Here are two of my top recommended omega-3 fish oil supplements.
This has a very pleasant, light lemon flavor and does not cause any "fishy burps". Also you only need 1 tsp. daily to meet the 1000 mg EPA + DHA
High quality and small capsules, you only need two to get over 1000 mg EPA + DHA
Talk with your healthcare provider about potential interactions of omega-3 dietary supplements with the current medications you take. For example, high doses of omega-3s may cause bleeding problems when taken with warfarin (Coumadin®) or other anticoagulant medicines.
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Liz Riesen, Registered Dietitian
specializes in digestive and hormone imbalances. Often these conditions coexist and share common disruptive symptoms including mood changes, bloating, pain, irregular cycles, inflammation, and more. Liz is trained in identifying and healing food sensitivities, as well as balancing hormones naturally through nutrition and lifestyle.