Omegas are a big deal in the world of nutrition. Everywhere you look is an omega-3 supplement, another great source of omega 3, or 6, or 9, another reason to eat fish or take fish oil capsules. You've probably also heard the terms ALA, DHA, EPA tossed around too, without knowing exactly what they mean or why they're good for you.
In this article, we'll get to the bottom of the omega fascination and complexity. But to satisfy your immediate curiosity––omegas are a mega-big deal for brain, heart, and cellular functioning. We'll look at what some of the best sources of this powerful fatty acid are and why.
What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
Omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in many of the foods you eat every day––fish, seafood, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, eggs, and plant-based oils. Virtually all of our 37 trillion cells depend on omega-3 fatty acids for cellular maintenance and metabolic health.
There are several types of omega 3s, but the ones that dietitians are most concerned with are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)––thank goodness for acronyms! They provide important nutrients for cellular and metabolic health throughout our lifespan.
ALA is a plant-based fatty acid that's considered essential because our bodies don' produce it so we must get it from our food. It's also a fatty acid precursor, meaning it helps our bodies synthesize EPA and DHA. However, conversion doesn't result in sufficient quantities of EPA and DHA, so we must consume dietary sources of those fatty acids too. ALA also converts differently from source to source, so the omega 3s contained in walnuts are not necessarily equal to those found in flaxseed, for example, from a health benefits perspective.
EPA comes primarily from animal products, such as fatty fish and fish oil, as well as microalgae, like chlorella and spirulina. It supports cardiovascular health and may help treat depression too. DHA is the most vital omega fatty acid for the health of several structures within our body, including our brain and eyes. Like EPA, we can get DHA in fish and algae, but it's also contained in meat, eggs, and dairy from grass-fed animals in significant amounts. In these cases, the conversion process has already occurred so our bodies can readily access EPA and DHA.
It's important to note that fish don't naturally produce omega 3s. Instead, they feed on phytoplankton that consumes microalgae, so they accumulate omega-3 fatty acids in their tissues indirectly (1). Going straight to the source by consuming nutrients like chlorella, spirulina, and plant-based fats is an excellent way for vegans to get sufficient omega 3s. However, some is lost in the conversion process.
Omega 3, 6 & 9––What's the Difference?
There are some misconceptions about the different types of omega fatty acids. Omega 3s and 6s are essential, whereas omega 9 is nonessential because our bodies can produce it. That doesn't mean don';t eat foods rich in omega 9; moderation consumption is certainly beneficial to our health. Great sources of omega 9's are canola and olive oils, and almonds.
Many people believe that all omegas, in general, are an overall healthy nutrient in any quantity. However, the average diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids, which researchers believe may counteract the health benefits of omega 3s, such as fighting inflammation. Other experts argue that the imbalance between the two nutrients accounts for inflammation. Consuming a proper ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s is necessary for the efficient conversion of ALA. While the jury is still out on the correct ratio, many integrative health experts suggest a 2:1 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6.
Omega 3 Benefits & Dosage
There is widespread evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent the onset of depression, anxiety, chronic inflammation, ADHD, and various other health conditions (2, 3, 4). It's also an extremely heart-healthy nutrient because it reduces triglycerides in the blood and slows the formation of plaque in the arteries.
There is no general consensus regarding a daily dose for the average person because several variables affect omega 3 metabolism, so there is great variance between people. However, there is evidence to suggest that runners may require more omega 3s than the average person (5). Intense physical exercise increases insulin sensitivity in the muscles, which alters the concentration of omega 3s in muscle membranes (6).
Are All Eggs Equal?
There are few marketing gimmicks more clever than the ones surrounding omega-3 eggs. Are they really a thing? Omegas are not naturally found within eggs. Eggs can be fortified with either DHA and ALA by feeding hens a diet containing flaxseed. Through digestion, the ALA found in flaxseed is broken down into DHA, and both nutrients transfer to the egg yolk. An average-sized egg contains about 340 mg of ALA and close to 100 mg of DHA. Although daily requirements vary from person to person, we need about 1 to 1.5 grams of ALA each day, and 250-500 mg combined DHA and EPA.
Hens produce omega-3 eggs when fed a diet containing flaxseed. When hens digest the flax, some ALA gets broken down into DHA, and both fatty acids transfer to the yolk. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 mg of ALA and 75 to 100 mg of DHA. In some cases, fish oil, an indirect source of omega 3, is added to chicken feed to boost the DHA content in yolks.
Here we have another example of plants as the original source of omega 3s, like microalgae is to fish, fish oil, and their supplemental counterparts. Many people consume eggs because they contain these critical omega-3 fatty acids. However, they could just go straight to the source and consume a single tablespoon of ground flaxseed to get more than triple the amount of omega 3s as a single egg. That doesn't mean you shouldn't eat eggs; it just may be more efficient to eat flax or another plant-based source of omega 3s.
Flax & Hemp Seeds: 2 Rich Plant-Based Sources of ALA
Flaxseed is one of the richest plant-based sources of ALA. However, ALA must be converted to DHA and EPA, a process that is not very efficient and results in far less useful fatty acid content than many manufacturers imply. While flaxseed oil contains a higher ALA content than the milled seed, it' missing a certain type of fiber, so it isn't a wholefood. That doesn't mean the seed should always replace the oil––the oil is a more efficient source, after all.
Flaxseed is also not the most digestible nutrient and may pass right through your intestinal tract. Grinding flaxseed with a mortar and pestle just before consumption is the best way to boost their bioavailability.
Compared to other nuts and seeds, hemp seeds have the best protein-to-fat ratio, and the protein is most biologically similar to our blood plasma. Just 28 grams of hemp seeds contain 6000 mg of ALA, which is about five times the daily recommended intake. Even after conversion, we're still reaping the health benefits of EPA and DHA by adding hemp seeds to our diet.
Want to know more about dietary fat? Check out our recent article, The Skinny on Dietary Fat to learn more about saturated and unsaturated fats, their health benefits and more.
From our kitchen to yours, we wish you o-mega great times whipping up happy-fat meals and snacks for your family!
Harris WS. Omega-3 fatty acids. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:577-86.
Davinelli S, et al. Front Physiol. 2019. 10: p. 487.