DF Archive

Can you give me some advice about omega-3s?

Can you give me some advice about omega-3s?

Q. I am confused about omega-3 fats. Are the different types equally good for you?

A. There are three main types of omega-3s to keep track of. The first two — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are found mainly in fish, so they’re sometimes called marine omega-3s. The third is alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA, found in plant-based foods, such as flaxseed, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils).

So far, the evidence for the marine omega-3s (EPA and DHA) having health benefits is more extensive than for the plant-based ALA. Studies have shown that EPA and DHA offer some measure of protection against heart attacks and strokes. EPA and DHA also have anti-inflammatory effects that may be useful in preventing or treating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Can you give me some advice about omega-3s?

Q. I am confused about omega-3 fats. Are the different types equally good for you?

A. There are three main types of omega-3s to keep track of. The first two — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are found mainly in fish, so they’re sometimes called marine omega-3s. The third is alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA, found in plant-based foods, such as flaxseed, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils).

So far, the evidence for the marine omega-3s (EPA and DHA) having health benefits is more extensive than for the plant-based ALA. Studies have shown that EPA and DHA offer some measure of protection against heart attacks and strokes. EPA and DHA also have anti-inflammatory effects that may be useful in preventing or treating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Some well-designed studies of ALA are under way, but right now there just aren’t enough data to be confident about ALA having the same effects as the marine-based omega-3s.

If you’re aiming to increase your omega-3 intake to accomplish all the things that omega-3s are thought to do, increasing the amount of fish you eat is probably the best way to go. That said, flaxseed and the other ALA-rich oils may still be a healthful choice, if you are using them to replace trans or saturated fat.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat two servings of omega-3-rich fish (salmon, for example) per week, which works out to about 400 to 500 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA per day. People with heart disease are advised to double that, so their daily intake is 1,000 mg, or a full gram. Taking fish oil capsules is often the most practical way to get that amount of omega-3s. If you choose to take fish oil capsules, note that the amount of EPA and DHA provided is often only about a third of that listed on the front of the bottle. Check the Nutrition Facts label on the back for the actual amount.

— JoAnn Manson, M.D., Dr.P.H.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Leave a Reply