Omega-3 101: What Are They and Why Are They Important?

published Dec 13, 2017
(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

You know you need to start focusing more on your health, but sometimes that prospect seems overwhelming. Like, how do you even do that? Are you supposed to start marinating yourself in essential oils? Raising your own bees? Eating crystals by the handful?

Thankfully, you don’t have to go full Gwyneth Paltrow to improve your cardiovascular health, maintain healthy brain function, and potentially benefit a number of other body systems as well. If you’re looking for baby steps — we’ll assume you came up with “eat right and exercise” on your own — a good one is to ensure that you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Which brings us to:

What are omega-3s?

Seeing “Omega-3s” on a package is like running into someone you’ve met but can’t place in the moment. So, let’s make a proper introduction. Omega-3s are a family of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. When you hear them mentioned, though, it’s usually in reference to the trio of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most research about the benefits of omega-3s focuses on these three as well.

Omega-3s cannot be made by our bodies, which means that we have to get them either through our diets or in supplements like high-quality fish oil.

Why are omega-3s important?

According to the National Institutes of Health, omega-3s serve a purpose in almost every body system, including the circulatory, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems. They are also found in the membranes that surround all of the cells in our bodies, which sounds like the best humblebrag a fatty acid can make: “Oh, we don’t do much, except form part of every single cell membrane that you have.”

The University of Maryland Medical Center also adds that omega-3s “appear to be important” for healthy brain function, may lower the risk of heart disease, and may also help reduce inflammation throughout the body. Additional research is being conducted to determine their effectiveness in helping to control or alleviate a number of conditions ranging from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to rheumatoid arthritis.*

(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

Which foods have omega-3s?

EPA and DHA mainly come from fish, especially fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. (Interestingly, the NIH explains that those fish don’t actually produce omega-3s either; when they eat the phytoplankton that eat certain kinds of microalgae, the omega-3s build up in their tissues. Tuck that away for your Jeopardy! audition.) ALA is most often found in plant oils such as canola, flaxseed, and soybean oil. Omega-3s can also be found in nuts and seeds, especially walnuts and chia seeds, and there are trace amounts in leafy green vegetables.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

How can you ensure that you’re getting enough omega-3s?

Most people get an adequate amount of ALA from the foods that they eat, but your body can only convert ALA into small amounts of EPA and DHA. Increasing the amount of omega-3 heavy foods you eat can help ensure you’re getting enough of all three essential fatty acids (although there is no singularly recognized standard recommended daily allowance for EPA or DHA). The FDA recommends that we eat two to three servings of “best choice fish” (salmon, Atlantic mackerel and others with low mercury content) per week.

If you don’t often eat walnuts or chia seeds, for example, you might consider omega-3 supplements, like Nordic Naturals’ Recommend Omega-3, a non-concentrate with 690 mg of omega-3s, or Ultimate Omega, a higher-potency, concentrated source with 1280 mg. According to NIH, fish oil supplements are the natural product that is most commonly taken by adults and children (and Nordic Naturals does have its own line of lightly fruit-flavored Children’s Omegas too).

If you decide to supplement your omega-3s, Nordic Naturals has more than 22 years of leadership in pioneering tasty research-backed products for adults, children, vegetarians, and even pets. As always, talk to your healthcare provider to discuss possible interactions between nutritional supplements and your medications. Whew, you don’t need those living room beehives after all.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
 These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

This post was created by the Kitchn Creative Studio and is sponsored by Nordic Naturals.
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