By Sarah Schmidt
If you keep up with the latest health news, you probably can’t help noticing that omega-3 fatty acids are the nutrient everyone seems to be talking about. Evidence is piling up that these healthy fats, which are particularly abundant in fish, are good for your heart, your mind, and, well, just about every system in the body. “They really cross all boundaries,” says Mark Hyman, a physician and co- medical director of Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, a medical spa in Lenox, Massachusetts. “No matter who you are, omega-3s are something you should be paying attention to.”
Why? Because omega-3s are a great way to prevent inflammation, which is emerging as the common denominator in a host of serious diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s. This apparent wonder worker of a nutrient is even being studied for its potential role in preventing cancer.
But the flood of information sparks as many questions as answers. Can you get what you need from a healthy diet? Is it possible to get too much? What if you’re a vegetarian? Not to worry: Our user’s guide will tell you everything you need to know to start taking advantage of this essential nutrient.
What’s the best dietary source of omega-3s?
Fatty fish, by far. One 4- to 6-ounce serving of salmon (either canned or fresh) contains about 2 grams, the amount most experts recommend per day. Tuna (fresh only) has about the same amount per serving; sardines and lake trout have slightly less.
The only problem is that some of these fish also contain mercury and PCBs. Many experts suggest limiting our consumption of tuna and farm-raised salmon to a few servings per month, so it’s best to choose wild salmon and lake trout whenever possible. (Hyman recommends vitalchoice.com as a mail-order source for healthy fish.) Grass-fed beef and wild game are also great sources if you have access to them, and “functional foods” like eggs and yogurt deliver some omega-3s as well—but not that much. A typical fortified egg provides about 100 milligrams.
Are there any good alternatives for vegetarians?
This one’s a bit tricky. Many people tout walnuts, canola oil, hemp oil, and flaxseed and oil for their omega-3s, but these foods actually don’t contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two types that are directly used in the body. What they do have is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can convert to EPA and DHA. The trouble is, not everyone is great at making this conversion.
“Right now, we don’t have a good way of knowing whose body is good at this and whose isn’t,” says David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat. The only plant source that contains usable omega-3s is algae—it’s where the fish get theirs—but it has only DHA. Still, it’s worth including plant sources in your diet, Katz says; just don’t depend on them for all of your daily omega-3s.
What kinds of supplements are the best, and what’s an ideal dosage?
Fish oil is the best source, and capsules are the easiest form to store and consume. For general good health, aim for 2 grams a day.
Keep in mind that your body will absorb that best if you take a 1,000-mg capsule twice a day instead of taking the 2,000 mg all at once. (If you’re hoping to treat a particular condition, like arthritis, you may need more than 2 grams; ask a holistic practitioner about a safe and effective amount.) Since fish oil can go rancid fairly easily, make sure the capsules also contain vitamin E as a stabilizer, and store them in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark place. The label will also tell you exactly how much EPA and DHA they contain, but the proportions may not be crucial. While researchers are still trying to ascertain the beneficial role each plays, so far both appear to offer certain advantages. (For instance, DHA seems to be better at lowering blood pressure, while EPA is more promising as a treatment for mental illness.) Just try to get some of each.
As with any supplement, it’s important to choose a reputable brand. The independent testing company ConsumberLab.com recently found that some fish oil pills contained lower levels of omega-3s than their labels stated (though all were found to be mercury-free). Some brands that did pass muster included Carlson, Nutrilite, Puritan’s Pride, and Vitamin World. The complete report is available at consumerlab.com for $9.
You can also take good old-fashioned cod liver oil if you can stomach it. But be aware that it contains vitamin A, which can be toxic at very high levels. It’s particularly dangerous to a developing fetus, so pregnant women should avoid cod liver oil altogether.
For vegetarians, both Hyman and Katz recommend an algae supplement called Neuromins, and again, 2 grams a day is the suggested dose. But since algae contains only DHA, it’s not quite as good an omega-3 source as fish or fish oil are.
Should I take omega-3s for my depression?
The fatty material that makes up our brain tissue is composed of omega-3 fatty acids, and studies have shown that supplementing can ease depression. “But don’t toss your prescription drugs yet,” says Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Omega-3s work by enhancing the effect of antidepressant drugs rather than acting independently to boost mood. You may need more than the recommended 2 grams of fish oil a day, but you should work with a practitioner to find a safe and effective amount.
Can omega-3s really help the inflammation in my joints and in my arteries?
Yep; inflammation is inflammation wherever it appears. So the same supplement you take to ease the pain in your knees may also protect your heart. Studies show that the nutrient offers several kinds of heart protection: It decreases the risk of irregular heart rhythm, slows the growth of plaque buildup in the arteries, and lowers triglycerides. (It may also lower blood pressure, though the research on that is mixed.) A recent study showed that people who took an omega-3 supplement right before eating a fatty meal had less of a triglyceride surge after the meal than those who didn’t. (Those who took a supplement and exercised had even less of a spike.)
How much do I need to worry about getting the right ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s?
Balance is important, but don’t fret too much about getting enough omega-6s. If you’re like most Americans, you’re already taking in plenty, since omega-6s are found in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, and soybean. Most experts agree that a healthy diet should include a ratio of about 4 to 1 omega-6s to omega-3s. A typical American is getting something closer to 20 to 1.
Is it possible to take too much?
Unless you’re acting on the advice of your doctor, you shouldn’t get more than 2 grams a day. Inflammation is actually a necessary part of the immune response; it’s only a problem when you’ve got too much. That means overdoing the omega-3s could suppress the body’s ability to heal, raising the risk for infection. Omega-3 supplements also reduce blood-clotting ability, so anyone regularly taking blood thinners or aspirin should consult a doctor before taking them.
Should I be giving them to my kids?
Though children need a smaller amount in proportion to their general diet, omega-3s are important for them, too. A good strategy is to work omega-3-rich foods into their meals. Kids who like fish will have an easy time of it (but keep in mind the warnings about mercury and PCBs). For those who don’t, Katz also suggests sprinkling freshly ground flaxseeds into cookie batter and onto cereal. (Grinding them in a coffee grinder and then storing them in the fridge will help prevent rancidity; to make sure the ALAs are still present, don’t keep ground seeds longer than a month.)
Supplements can also be beneficial for children. Half a gram to 1 gram of fish oil a day is an appropriate dose for ages one to eight, says Katz. Kids age nine and up can take the adult dose of 2 grams a day.