Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Omega-3 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats. They have gained a lot of attention because of their many health benefits such as heart health, lowering triglycerides and their effect on brain, nerve and eye development in children of pregnant and breastfeeding women. There is also ongoing research to determine the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis; cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia; mental health disorders including depression and anxiety; and certain types of cancer, however this is not yet conclusive.
There are 3 types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Our bodies do not produce these omega-3 fatty acids, so it is essential to get them through diet or a supplement.
Fatty fish such as, salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines and arctic char are great sources of the most beneficial type of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Other fish contain omega-3 fatty acids as well, but in smaller amounts. In Canada, there is no specific Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for EPA & DHA. For healthy individuals, it is recommended that you try to consume at least 2 servings of fish (75 g/2.5 oz.) per week and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources. This would provide, on average, between approximately 2.5 - 5 grams(g) EPA & DHA per day.
There are also plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flax, soy and canola oil, ground flax seed, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans and tofu. These foods contain ALA, which can be converted in the body to DHA and EPA, but in limited amounts. The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults 19 years of age and older is between 1.1 to 1.6 g ALA per day.
Omega-3 fats can also be found in some eggs, juices, margarines, cheese and milk, where specified on the label.
People with existing heart disease may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement if they think they are not getting enough from dietary sources. Omega-3 supplements can come in the form of fish or krill oil, or vegetarian sources such as algal oil. A supplement containing about 1 gram (g) DHA + EPA should be sufficient for most people with existing heart disease. For those with elevated triglycerides, a supplement containing 2-4 grams (g) of EPA + DHA is suggested. This higher dose should be taken under a doctor’s supervision due to the potential to interact with some heart medications.
Some individuals complain of “fishy” burps after taking an omega-3 supplement. Taking the supplement with the largest meal of the day may help alleviate this problem.
There is concern about the consumption of certain types of fish which may be high in mercury. It is recommended that you limit your intake of fish such as: fresh/frozen or canned albacore (white) tuna, shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and escolar. For more information, please visit the Health Canada website: Mercury in Fish.
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