Not all fats are the same. Example: omega-3 fatty acids, known as “healthy fats.” They are packed with health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to helping with anxiety. The best part? They are found in many food sources, but you can also choose from over-the-counter omega-3 supplements.
But like any modern health food, omega-3 fatty acids are surrounded by hype. What benefits are supported 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 that 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 the production of hormones for blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of arteries, and genetic functions. In other words, we need omega-3s and can only get them from food or supplements.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Adding 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 called “marine omega-3s.” The third type (ALA) is common in a variety of food sources, including some oils, nuts, leafy greens, 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
- Rapeseed oil
Fish, without a doubt, is the best source of omega-3. If you’re vegan or otherwise don’t eat seafood, you may have 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 are consuming fish or supplements that include these.
Science-backed benefits of omega-3s
Scientists have noted various benefits that can be associated with omega-3 fatty acids. Some have more evidence than others, so we’ll look at the most notable benefits with some of the most promising scientific backing.
Reduce the risk of heart disease
A large body of research has shown a link between heart health and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats appear to have positive effects on various aspects of cardiovascular health. Most notably, however, omega-3s are associated with a more stable heart rhythm, lower blood pressure and heart rate, better blood vessel function, and lower levels of inflammation.
Replacing saturated fats, such as red meat, butter and full-fat dairy products, with unsaturated fats such as omega-3s can reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
Fight anxiety and depression
Although more research is needed on the exact link between mental health and omega-3 intake, there appears 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 – specifically EPA and DHA – play a major role in building the cellular makeup of our eyes. Not only do they help during the early stages of our development, but research shows that consistent, adequate intake of these fats can help prevent vision problems like macular degeneration later in life.
Promoting prenatal and childhood brain development
Scientists are actively studying the general relationship between omega-3s and brain health, especially in the womb and during our early life. Some studies show that children of mothers who take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding may have better mental processing abilities than those who do not. Additionally, studies show that mothers who take DHA supplements can improve infant nutrition, leading to better cognitive function and vision later in life.
Slow cognitive decline
Because of the link between omega-3s and overall brain health, it’s perhaps no surprise that some research supports that these fats may slow cognitive decline as we age. This may hold particular promise 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 many other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including their effects on ADHD, metabolic syndrome, and some autoimmune diseases.
Disadvantages of Omega-3 Supplements
Doctors generally recommend getting most or all of your omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources. Baked or broiled fish (not fried) 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, offer many of the same benefits as getting these fats through dietary sources. These supplements are generally considered safe when taken in moderation. However, there are a few potential drawbacks to consider.
Risk of bleeding
There is some indication that omega-3 supplements may improve the effects of anti-clotting drugs, herbs, and supplements. When taken together, it 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 nutritional supplements. In particular, there may be adverse interactions between omega-3 supplements and medications taken for blood pressure, birth control, and weight loss.
Common side effects
Some users of omega-3 supplements have noticed general discomfort associated with them. This can include heartburn, nausea and diarrhea.
Other side effects of omega-3 supplements that some note include a fishy aftertaste and bad breath, along with rashes in some cases. People with seafood allergies should also check with their doctors before taking fish oil supplements.
Should You Take Omega-3 Supplements?
Omega-3s are essential for cell growth and overall health, and it is extremely important to include them in your normal dietary intake. Ideally, it’s best to do this through sources like fish, walnuts, flaxseed oil, and other foods that are rich 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 are packed with a balanced serving of the three essential omega-3s and are relatively inexpensive. However, keep in mind that they should be taken in moderation and after consulting your doctor. Some omega-3 supplements may interact with other medications or supplements you take, and you may experience other side effects.
Although more research is needed to fully reveal the full benefits of omega-3s, one thing is clear: they are an important part of any balanced diet.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.