Not all fats are created equal. Case in point: omega-3 fatty acids, known as “healthy fats”. They’re packed with health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to helping with anxiety. The best part? They are found in many food sources, although you can also choose from over-the-counter omega-3 supplements.
But like any fad health food, omega-3 fatty acids are surrounded by hype. What benefits are supported by science and are there any downsides to omega-3s or their supplements? We help you solve it below.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are an essential part of the human diet. Unlike other fats that the body is able to synthesize (called non-essential fatty acids), omega-3s cannot be made from scratch. They are vital for various body processes, such as making hormones for blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of arteries, and genetic functions. In other words, we need omega-3s, and we can only get them from food or supplements.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Add omega-3 to your diet
Different types of foods provide different omega-3 fatty acids. The first two types (EPA and DHA) are abundant in fish, which is why they are commonly called “marine omega-3s.” The third type (ALA) is common in a variety of food sources, including certain oils, nuts, leafy vegetables, and some meats.
The best sources of omega-3 include:
- wild salmon
- Red tuna
- lake trout
- scratched bass
- Linseed oil
- Meat from grass-fed animals
- chia seeds
- Canola oil
Fish is by far the best source of omega-3. If you’re vegan or don’t eat seafood, you may have to make a special effort to get enough of these important fats in your diet. In this case, omega-3 supplements can be helpful, especially for EPA and DHA. Although your body naturally converts a small amount of ALA to DHA and EPA, it may be a good idea to make sure you are consuming fish or supplements that include them.
Science-backed benefits of omega-3s
Scientists have noted a variety of benefits that may be associated with omega-3 fatty acids. Some of them have more evidence than others, so we’ll look at the most notable benefits with some of the most promising scientific backing.
It reduces the risk of heart disease
A wide range of studies have shown a connection between heart health and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats appear to have a positive impact on several aspects of cardiovascular health. Most notably, however, omega-3s have been correlated with a more stable heart rhythm, lower blood pressure and heart rate, better blood vessel function, and lower levels of inflammation.
Replacing saturated fats, such as red meat, butter and whole milk, with unsaturated fats such as omega-3s can reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Fights anxiety and depression
While more research is needed on the exact correlation between mental health and omega-3 intake, there appears to be strong evidence that these fats can help reduce depression and anxiety for many people. EPA, in particular, has shown promising results as a treatment for mild to moderate depression.
Improve eye health
Omega-3s, EPA and DHA in particular, play an important role in building the cellular makeup of our eyes. Not only do they help during our early stages of development, but research suggests that a consistent and adequate intake of these fats can help prevent vision problems such as macular degeneration later in life.
Promote prenatal and infant brain development
Scientists are actively studying the general connection between omega-3s and brain health, especially in the womb and during our early life. Some studies have shown that children of mothers who take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding may have better mental processing abilities than those who do not. In addition, studies have shown that mothers who take DHA supplements can improve the nutrition of their babies’ breast milk, leading to better cognitive function and eyesight later in life.
Slow cognitive decline
Because of the connection between omega-3s and overall brain health, it’s perhaps not surprising that some research supports that these fats can slow cognitive decline as we age. This may hold particular promise for helping to slow the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although more research is still needed in this area.
Scientists are still studying these and many other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including their effect on ADHD, metabolic syndrome, and certain autoimmune diseases.
Disadvantages of Omega-3 Supplements
Doctors generally recommend that you get most or all of your omega-3 fatty acids from food sources. Grilled or baked (not fried) fish is the best thing to add to your diet, along with some of the other foods mentioned above.
However, omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil or cod liver oil, provide many of the same benefits as getting these fats through food sources. These supplements are generally considered safe when taken in moderation. However, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of.
Risk of bleeding
There is some indication that omega-3 supplements may improve the effects of anti-blood clotting medications, herbs, and supplements. When taken together, it can increase your risk of bleeding or reduce your ability to stop bleeding.
Other possible drug interactions
More research is needed on how fish oil supplements interact with other medications and dietary supplements. In particular, there may be adverse interactions between omega-3 supplements and drugs for blood pressure, birth control, and weight loss.
General side effects
Some users of omega-3 supplements have noted general discomfort associated with them. This can include heartburn, nausea and diarrhea.
Other side effects of omega-3 supplements that some have noted include a fishy aftertaste and bad breath, along with skin rashes in some cases. People with shellfish allergies should also consult their doctor before taking fish oil supplements.
Should You Take Omega-3 Supplements?
Omega-3s are essential for cell growth and overall health, and it is essential to include them in your normal dietary intake. Ideally, this is best done through sources such as fish, walnuts, flaxseed oil, and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
However, if you cannot include these foods in your diet, omega-3 supplements are a relatively safe alternative. It’s easy to find supplements that contain a balanced portion of the three main omega-3s, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind, however, that they should be taken in moderation and in consultation with your doctor. Some omega-3 supplements may interact with other drugs or supplements you are taking, and you may experience other side effects.
While more research is needed to uncover the full benefits of omega-3s, one thing is clear: they are an important part of any balanced diet.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as medical or health advice. Always consult a doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have about a medical condition or health goals.