The Real Benefits Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

While the human body can make most of the types of fat it needs to function, there is one it cannot produce on its own: omega-3 fatty acids (via Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). These are essential fats that the body needs in order to survive and must get from foods. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include fish, nuts, flax seeds, vegetable oils, and leafy vegetables.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids (via Cleveland Clinic). Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in fish, while alpha-linolenic (ALA) is found in plants. All three forms of omega-3 fatty acids have health benefits, although most research involves EPA and DHA.

Health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids include reduced risk of heart disease, reduced risk of sudden cardiac death for people with abnormal heart rhythms, reduced risk of blood clots, and reduced risk of death in people with heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help lower triglyceride levels in the blood and lower blood pressure.

Some research suggests people who get higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and other cognitive disorders, as well as age-related macular degeneration (a major cause of vision loss), according to the National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help individuals manage symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, dry eye disease, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), childhood allergies, and cystic fibrosis, although more research is needed to prove these benefits.

How much omega-3 do you need?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating two servings of fish per week. One serving equals 3.5 ounces of uncooked fish or ¾ cup of flaked fish. The AHA recommends focusing on fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and albacore tuna, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. 

However, some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury and other environmental contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls. The AHA recommends avoiding fish with the highest levels of potential mercury contamination, including shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. This is especially important for children and pregnant people, as mercury exposure has been associated with neurological issues in the developing fetus, according to Harvard Health Publishing. However, the organization notes that for middle-aged and older adults, the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids far outweigh the risks associated with eating fish within the guidelines established by the U.S. Food & Drug Association and Environmental Protection Agency.

For those who don't eat fish, supplements containing DHA and EPA are available. According to Heathline, while there are no set guidelines for EPA and DHA consumption, "most health organizations agree that 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA is enough for adults to maintain their overall health."