If you are vegan, vegetarian or don’t eat fish for whatever reason, this is an important question to ask yourself.
Are you getting enough omega 3 and how much omega 3 should you take?
Omega 3 has a direct impact on our brain and eye health and has other health benefits too. It’s known as an essential fatty acid. This is because our bodies can’t make it. We need to consume it through food.
We’re going to be looking at the best sources, whether fish is the healthiest way to get it, and how much to take.
I’ll also be getting a little “sciency” to explain the different types of omega 3 fatty acids and why you need all of them. Don’t worry, I’m not a scientist, so I won’t be speaking like one.
Omega 3 and the Brain
Around 50% of your brain is fat. This is a big part of the reason why demonising fat in the past was such a bad idea. We need fat for our brain health, hormonal health, and healthy cells.
Did you know that your brain shrinks as you age? The first time I found that out, I freaked out. I mean, what?!
But it’s true. From the age of 20 or so, our brains start shrinking. This eventually leads to diminished brain function.
As Dr. Michael Greger notes here, at 70, our brains are about the size of a toddler’s.
One thing that researches found was that those who consumed omega 3 had a far better time of it. Their brains shrank a little slower and maintained their structure better.
Those who didn’t consume any omega 3 had accelerated brain ageing, about 2 years worth.
I don’t know about you, but I intend to age gracefully both inside and out. That includes my brain.
What researchers haven’t found is much of an improvement in brain function if you already eat enough omega 3.
So this article really is targeted at people who don’t eat fish or other omega 3 sources and have low omega 3 levels due to poor conversion of ALA to DHA.
More on that later.
Omega 3 Intake During Pregnancy
Research shows that women generally don’t need to supplement omega 3, usually because they are eating it.
The body takes omega 3 from the mother’s stores for the baby and during pregnancy, your body will convert ALA to EPA and DHA better. I’ll go into what that means a little bit later.
This means that theoretically you will have higher omega 3 levels to support your pregnancy.
However, there is a risk, especially if your intake of plant-based sources is low, that you won’t be getting enough. Morning sickness can put a real spanner in the works too.
It stands to reason that if your levels are low, your baby might not receive enough.
Omega 3 is incredibly important for developing eyesight, language learning capabilities, and visual recognition capabilities. Later in life, it helps with better social skills and communication.
A study showed that increasing omega 3 intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding if you, your partner or other children have allergies may prevent your baby from developing allergies.
It may also give you a better chance of carrying to full term or at least very close to term.
For this reason, it’s currently recommended that those of us gals who are plant-based or among the fish-shunners of the world should take an omega 3 supplement during pregnancy.
This would preferably be an algal-oil based omega 3 supplement as fish oil may contain toxins. If not, choose your brand wisely.
But just bear in mind, going overboard as with most things, does more harm that good.
Intakes of 800mg of omega 3 has been shown to have a negative impact on learning outcomes and speech development. Moderation is key. 200mg is the recommended amount.
Other Omega 3 Benefits and Uses in the Body
- Omega 3 is necessary for good eye health
- Getting sufficient omega 3 may be helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or other mental disorders
- It lowers inflammation
- Adequate omega 3 intake may benefit skin health although, this is still being researched
Types of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There are actually 11 types of omega 3’s. But we only really need to deal with the 3 most important types.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
While you don’t really need to worry too much about supplementing with ALA since it’s available in plant foods, you need to make sure that if you use an omega 3 supplement that contains EPA and/or DHA.
DHA especially is critical for good brain health. EPA plays a role in lowering inflammation.
These very critical forms of omega 3 were thought to only be found in fish. But, you can get a plant-based EPA and DHA derived from algal oil.
Omega 3 Foods
When most people think of omega 3, they think of fish. But this isn’t the only source and thank goodness for that.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that our oceans are polluted and fish can absorb some of that it.
Fish are also contaminated with heavy metals.
And I can appreciate some heavy metal music-wise, I enjoy it every so often when the mood takes me. But I like to keep it to a minimum in my food.
Yes, heavy metals are present in everything. It’s present in the soil and leeches into the plants. We do actually need some of them in small amounts, like iron and zinc for example.
But mercury? Lead? Nope, no need for those at all.
Some fish are especially high in mercury and in fact most if not all fish contain some. That’s the reason pregnant women shouldn’t have more than two servings a week.
Then there is overfishing. We are taking more fish out of the ocean than can naturally be replaced. If we don’t lessen the fishing, there will eventually be nothing left to eat. Also, the ecosystem will be impacted negatively 😦
If you prefer to get omega 3 from fish after reading this post, you will get no judgement from me. I still really miss salmon sushi and occasionally calamari too. This was the extent of my fish enjoyment.
My husband and I have chatted more than once about including fish in our diet. But the toxins and overfishing thing deters us.
Given that I didn’t really enjoy fish, I used to take fish oil capsules (with DHA and EPA) in hopes of controlling my cholesterol for a good few years. It helped some but not much.
The only thing that helped me was going plant-based. Because statins? Ugh, ain’t nobody got time for that. Well, this body anyway. Seriously, click the link and check out the side effects. Just no.
Plant-Based Omega 3
EPA and DHA
As mentioned before, algal oil is a good source of EPA and DHA. They are present in kelp and algae like spirulina and dulse in very small amounts.
Nori, a type of seaweed also contains a very small amount of EPA.
ALA is easy to get on a healthy diet that includes veggies, nuts and seeds.
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds (eat them ground as they don’t break down well when whole)
- Leafy green veggies
- Canola oil
- Kidney beans
Should You Take An Omega 3 Supplement?
It’s recommended to be on the safe side to take a supplement containing EPA and DHA. Check with your doctor first if you are on blood thinning medication first though.
Conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA
Unfortunately, the conversion rate is low. Only up to about 10% of ALA is converted to EPA, and at most 5% is converted to DHA.
This is especially true as we get older. You can still get away with getting it from plant foods for a few decades, but once you pass middle age, I would supplement for sure.
Men also have a lower ALA to EPA and DHA conversion rate too, so gents, you may have to start supplementing earlier than us ladies.
Your body has an easier time of converting ALA to EPA than DHA. So if you do supplement, EPA isn’t as essential as DHA.
Sadly, if you want to go the plant-based route, vegan omega 3 supplements are quite pricey compared to fish oil. Hopefully that will change eventually if the demand goes up.
I have often thought of being a chegan (vegan that cheats) in that regard but have decided not to go that route. I may still change my mind at some point, but for now, nope.
If you go for a fish oil supplement, choose a reputable brand that makes sure all the toxins have been removed.
A Word About Omega 6
None of us need to supplement with omega 6 unless directed to by a medical professional. It’s so easy to get.
It’s in vegetable oils, especially sunflower and safflower oil. Even canola oil contains omega 6. All the plant sources of omega 3 contain omega 6 too. Nuts are high in omega 6.
If you enjoy baked goods, you are likely getting a bunch of omega 6 there too.
Like omega 3, you do need to eat omega 6 since our bodies don’t make it. Our bodies need it to keep our brains healthy, keep our metabolism growing, and for good hair and skin health.
Too much omega 6 also blocks the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, by up to 50%.
So if you aren’t supplementing with DHA, keep your omega 6 intake low. Lessen your intake regardless really, else your DHA supplement may not work for you.
It isn’t hard when you stick to a mostly whole food diet and minimise your use of cooking oils.
In time, I’ll write an article about omega 6. It isn’t all bad. Don’t be afraid of it. Just try to stick to a ratio of 4:1 (omega 6 to omega 3). Many people get a ratio of more like 20:1. Yikes.
How Much Omega 3 Should You Take
When I was studying nutrition a few years back, the suggested combined value of the EPA and DHA was 500mg.
But research isn’t so clear-cut. There is still no actual established recommended intake level for optimal health.
But considering that supplementing with just 200mg will boost your levels to the healthy level, I’d say this is adequate.
If you have testing available in your country, your levels should be no lower than 4.0.
So there you have it. Long overdue but better late than never 😊 Let me know what your favourite way of getting omega 3 is.
Stay happy and healthy and be the best you!