Not all fats are created equal. Case in point: Omega-3 fatty acids, known as “healthy fats,” have several benefits for your health, from reducing the risk of heart disease to reducing anxiety. The best part? They’re found in many food sources, but you can also choose from over-the-counter omega-3 supplements.
But like any trendy health food, omega-3 fatty acids are surrounded by hype. What benefits are backed by science, and are there any downsides to omega-3s or their supplements? We help you sort it out 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 the body is able to synthesize (called non-essential fatty acids), omega-3s cannot be made from scratch. They are vital for various bodily processes, such as making hormones for blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of arteries, and genetic functions. In other words, we need omega-3s, and we can only get them from foods or supplements.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA
- Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA
- Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA
Add omega-3s 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 referred to as “marine omega-3s.” The third type, ALA, is common in a variety of food sources, including some oils, nuts, leafy vegetables, and some meats.
The best sources of omega-3s include:
- wild salmon
- Red tuna
- lake trout
- Striped Bass
- Linseed oil
- Meat from grass-fed animals
- Chia seeds
- Canola oil
Fish is by far the best source of omega-3s. If you’re vegan or don’t eat seafood, you may need to work especially hard 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 consume fish or supplements that contain it.
Scientifically 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 review the most notable benefits with some of the most promising scientific backing.
Reduce your risk of heart disease
A wide range of studies have shown a link between heart health and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats seem to have a positive impact on various aspects of cardiovascular health. Most notably, however, omega-3s have been correlated with a more stable heart rate, 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 dairy products, with unsaturated fats such as omega-3s may reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Fight anxiety and depression
Although more research is needed on the exact correlation between mental health and omega-3 intake, there seems to be strong evidence that these fats can help reduce depression and anxiety in many people. EPA, in particular, has shown promise as a treatment for mild to moderate depression.
Improve eye health
Omega-3s – EPA and DHA in particular – play a major role in building the cellular makeup of our eyes. Not only do they help during our early stages of development, research suggests that a regular 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 link between omega-3s and brain health, especially in the womb and early in 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 don’t. Additionally, studies have shown that mothers who take DHA supplements can improve breast milk nutrition for infants, leading to better cognitive function and eyesight later in life.
Slow cognitive decline
Because of the link between omega-3s and general brain health, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some research supports that these fats may slow cognitive decline as you age. It may be particularly promising 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 other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including their effect on ADHD, metabolic syndrome, and certain autoimmune diseases.
Disadvantages of Omega-3 Supplements
Generally, doctors 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 obtaining these fats through food sources. These supplements are generally considered safe when taken in moderation. However, there are a few potential downsides to consider.
Risk of bleeding
There are indications that omega-3 supplements may enhance the effects of blood-thinning medications, herbs, and supplements. When taken together they may increase your risk of bleeding or reduce your ability to stop bleeding.
Other Potential 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 medications taken 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 fishy aftertaste and bad breath, as well as rashes in some cases. People with seafood 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’s essential to include them in your normal dietary intake. Ideally, this is best done from sources such as fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, and other foods high 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 serving of the three main omega-3s, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind, however, that these should be taken in moderation and in consultation with your doctor. Some omega-3 supplements may interact with other medications or supplements you take, and you may experience other side effects.
While more research is needed to fully uncover the full benefits of omega-3s, one thing is clear: they are an important part of any balanced diet.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.