The 411 On Supplements | Omega 3 Fatty Acids
In continuation of the last supplements post, learn why you would benefit from an omega 3 fatty acid supplement.
The human body requires fat in the diet in order to function, meaning our bodies cannot produce certain fats we need to survive. There are two types of essential fats: Omega 6 fatty acids and Omega 3 fatty acids and they are in the class of polyunsaturated fats. Most Americans consume plenty of Omega 6 fatty acids because they are rich in corn and soybean oil. Nuts and seeds (think flaxseed) are also rich in omega 6s. Translation? Whether you're eating a diet full of highly processed and fried food or a healthy diet, you're probably most likely consuming enough omega 6s.
Optimal intake of Omega 6 fatty acids and Omega 3 fatty acids should be in a ratio of 3:1. The typical American diet consumes 14-25x more omega 6s than omega 3s, and most Americans don't consume enough omega 3s. So, what's the the big deal? Most of the Omega 6 fatty acids play an inflammatory role in the body, while Omega 3 fatty acids aid in anti-inflammatory responses. Inflammatory processes are necessary for our bodies to promote healing, but many nutrition experts theorize that the imbalance of consumption contributes to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. (Think about it-- most Americans consume 14-25x inflammatory mediators than they do anti-inflammatory mediators-- yikes!)
Let's dive in a bit on Omega 3 fatty acids and explore their functions, sources, and how much we actually need.
What are they and what do they do for me?
Alpha linolenic acid (ALA): These are found in plant foods such as nuts and seeds like walnuts, soybeans, flaxseed, and chia seeds. It's also found in soybean oil and canola oil. Most Americans consume adequate amounts of ALA. In fact, Americans consume it mostly from soybean and canola oil.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): The main sources of EPA are fish, particularly fatty cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, cod, herring, and sardines, algae, and krill. EPA is linked to improved heart health by reducing our body's inflammatory response and reducing our risk for blood clotting. Most Americans do not consume EPA in adequate amounts.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Found in similar sources to EPA. DHA are associated with resolving the inflammatory response and keeping the walls of our cells flexible. It's also the predominant structural fatty acid in the central nervous system and retina, and its availability is crucial for brain development. Most Americans do not consume these in adequate amounts, either.
Daily Recommended Amounts:
The World Health Organization supports the following...
Generally healthy folks should aim for: 500 mg EPA+DHA/day (250 mg EPA + 250 mg DHA)
- This can be achieved with two, 4-oz servings of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, herring, sardines) per week and/or EPA/DHA fortified foods and/or supplements, and/or combination of all options.
You read that right-
In order to consume adequate amounts of omega 3s in real food, you would need to eat fatty fish twice per week.
You lucky folks living on the coasts will likely fare better at meeting this recommendation where fish is bountiful and more reasonably priced than the fish purchased in land-locked states. But what about the rest of us? Here's a couple options:
- DHA fortified dairy milk- 32 mg per 1 cup
- DHA fortified pea milk- 32 mg per 1 cup
- DHA fortified soy milk- 32 mg per 1 cup
- There are many other non-dairy alternatives for DHA fortified milk, I just recommend pea and soy milk due to their higher protein content to boost intake throughout the day and better aid in muscle restoration.
- DHA fortified peanut butter- 32 mg per 2 tbsp
Note that the omega 3 content of these foods is still quite low, so it's not possible to meet the daily recommendation consuming these foods alone.
There are plenty of fish oil/omega 3 fatty acid supplements on the market. If you read my last post, you'll know you want to look for one that is rated by an independent testing agency.
- Fish Oil- Look for 250 mg EPA and 250 mg DHA. Many supplements on the market tend to be heavy on the EPA, so it's something to watch out for. There are plenty of quality ones on the market, so I won't link to specific ones.
- Vegan Option- Algae-based
Omega 3s, Sports, and Concussions
There is compelling new scientific data showing the benefits of omega 3 fatty acid supplementation for athletes who have experienced concussions (AKA, traumatic brain injuries). In animal models, DHA supplementation has shown to heal injury. The dose translated to humans was a large therapeutic amount that would be taken only under supervision of a physician.
Athletes in contact sports like football and soccer, for examples are particularly at risk for concussions. In fact, sports related concussions are the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries in kids and young adults. The American College of Sports Medicine has even suggested that protective equipment such as helmets do not reduce the incidence or severity of concussion in sports.
A recent 2016 human study on football players found that omega 3 supplementation had a protective effect on the brain over the course of the season. While more research in this area is absolutely needed, it's evident that these athletes in particular would especially benefit from ensuring they are consuming the recommended daily amount of Omega 3s.
There are still quite a bit of unknowns regarding omega 3 intake and overall health. In fact, the largest study ever done on omega 3s was on EPA, ONLY and it was conducted in 2007. Two of the most recent studies have found no significant effects of EPA+DHA on cardiovascular disease and risk. However, these were conducted in 2010 and 2012, and didn't account for the fact that baseline intakes of omega 3s were higher than in previous studies done in the late '80s and '90s. The field of nutrition needs longer term studies with many participants!
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