Omega 3 fats (also called n-3 fats or omega-3 fatty acids) are “essential fatty acids” or EFAs. Essential fatty acids cannot be made by the body, and must be obtained from food.
While omega 3 fats are found in both animal and plant foods, they are much more concentrated in animal sources. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the two major omega-3 fatty acids in fish. The greatest amounts of EPA and DHA are found in oily, dark-fleshed fish that live in deep, cold waters such as sardines, mackerel, bluefish, and wild salmon.
Are You Deficient in Omega 3 Fats?
Not only is the Western diet filled with an excess of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, it is also critically deficient in omega-3’s. In fact, modern agricultural and industrial practices have all but eliminated omega-3s from our food supply.
For example, organic eggs from hens allowed to feed on insects and green plants contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the beneficial ratio of approximately one-to-one. Commercial supermarket eggs can contain as much as nineteen times more omega-6 than omega-3!
The same is true for farm raised fish (versus wild fish) and grain fed beef (versus grass fed beef) – feedlots and farm-raising always results in fewer omega 3 fats and a high ratio of inflammatory omega 6 fats.
How Much Omega 3 Should You Eat?
So what is the right amount of omega 3 fats in the diet for optimum health?
The National Institute of Health Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids proposes the following daily intake:
- 650 mg of EPA and DHA
- 2.22 g/day of alpha-linolenic acid
- 4.44 g/day of linoleic acid (with an upper limit of 6.67)
It’s important to note that many long-living, seafood-eating cultures consume more than 10 grams of EPA/DHA daily. That’s over fifteen times the amount recently recommended by the NIH. Studies have shown therapeutic benefits of up to 3 g of EPA/DHA daily.
What’s more, the recommended daily intake for omega-6 is extremely low compared to the current average annual consumption, per capita of 13 grams/day. Just 1 Tbsp. of corn, cottonseed, soybean oil (or vegetable oil blend) will exceed the intake recommended by the National Institute of Health.
Is Flax a Good Source of Omega 3 Fats?
It’s important to note that while ALA from flaxseed is beneficial, it’s not a substitute for the long-chain EPA and DHA found in fish.
The body can convert ALA to EPA, but the process isn’t efficient. In fact only 8% of ALA is converted to EPA in men (with 0-4% converting to DHA) and 21% of ALA is converted to EPA in women (with 9% converting to DHA).
To get the EPA + DHA you need, enjoy wild omega-3 rich fish (like salmon, mackerel, sardines and Pacific halibut) several times a week and take a high quality fish oil supplement that is tested for purity (like Carlson’s).
Should You Take a Fish Oil Supplement to Get More Omega 3 Fats in Your Diet?
The processing and packaging of fish oil is crucial to its quality. Low-quality oils can be unstable and contain significant amounts undesirable oxidation products and cancer-causing compounds called dioxins.
High quality oils are stabilized with adequate amounts of vitamin E and are packaged in packaging that reduces exposure to light and oxygen.
While fish oil capsules from reputable companies (see below) may be easier for some people to take, recent research conducted at the University of Minnesota found that emulsified fish oils are much better absorbed than the straight oils in gelatin capsules. Here are three brands we like:
- Carlson Laboratories: Very Finest Fish Oil, Cod Liver Oil Softgels, Salmon Oil, Carlson for Kids
- Nordic Naturals: Children’s DHA, Ultimate Omega, Cod Liver Oil
- Jarrow Formulas: Max DHA softgels, Max DHA liquid, EPA-DHA Balance