Get to Know Your Omegas: ALA, EPA, and DHA

Get to Know Your Omegas: ALA, EPA, and DHA

You might know that omega-3 fatty acids are good for you—but do you know why, how and where to find them? This essential part of your diet occurs naturally in many foods, but can also be found in dietary supplements. If you want to keep your heart healthy, your energy up and your immune system boosted, you need to make sure that you’re getting plenty of fatty acids in your diet.

Introducing your dream team, the omega-3 fatty acids

There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Unlike EPA and DHA, your body can’t make ALA on its own. It’s an essential part of your diet, so you’ll need to get it from foods like flaxseed, canola oil and soybeans. The other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are found in fish and other seafood. You need to get all three in your diet for optimum health.

Omega-3s are crucial to every cell in your body—so it’s hard to overestimate how important they are to your diet. These fatty acids make up your cell walls and membranes. Your retinas, brain and sperm cells contain high levels of DHA, and all three omega-3s help provide energy for your body. They support your blood vessels, heart, lungs, endocrine system and immune system. (We don’t have to tell you how important all of that is, especially during a global pandemic.)

How omega-3s impact your health

  • Protect your heart. EPA and DHA can reduce your triglycerides, which in turn improves your cardiovascular health. If you have heart disease, your doctor may recommend you take a supplement.
  • Keep your brain in fighting shape. Omega-3s have been linked to a lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive function-related illnesses.
  • Ward off cancer. There is some research that suggests regularly consuming omega-3s is related to lower instances of breast and colorectal cancer. This needs further study before you take it as fact, however.
  • Prevent macular degeneration. Getting enough omega-3s will help lower your risk of developing age-related macular degeneration—but if you already have it, supplements will not help manage or reduce your symptoms.
  • Say goodbye to dry eye. Some research suggests that people with dry eye disease benefit from taking omega-3 supplements. However, more study is needed before doctors can definitively say so.
  • Manage your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. When taken with regular RA prescriptions, omega-3s have been shown to help manage symptoms. Some patients are able to reduce the amount of painkillers they use.
  • Build the perfect baby. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, eating eight to 12 ounces of seafood (choose varieties that are low in mercury) has been shown to support your baby’s health and development.

How to get your omega-3s—and how much you need

Depending on your age and sex, your recommended daily value of ALA ranges from 0.3g to 1.6g. (A recommended amount of EPA and DHA has not yet been determined.) Most people get plenty of omega-3s from the food they regularly consume. If you don’t, you may develop a red, swollen rash and rough, swollen skin. However, omega-3 deficiency is extremely rare in the United States.

It’s always better to get omega-3s from foods instead of supplements. Salmon, lake trout, tuna, bluefish, anchovies, sardines, sturgeon, orange roughy, mackerel, herring and marlin are all excellent fish sources. (Try to avoid eating them fried.)

If you don’t eat fish, it’s important that you take omega-3 supplements to support your nutrition. However, supplements are unnecessary for the vast majority of people. (It’s a good thing, too: fish oil supplements are known to cause indigestion and gas.) As always, talk to your doctor about what they recommend before starting a new nutritional supplement or program.

Other food sources include flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola and soybean oil and chia seeds. Keep in mind that because omega-3s are fatty acids, they can be high in calories. Make sure that you eat these foods in moderation, especially if you’re on a limited calorie diet.

It’s time to make omega-3s a regular part of your diet

As you can see, omega-3s support your health in a variety of ways—and the foods they’re in just happen to be tasty, too. When you’re building your meal plan for the week, make sure you throw in some healthy sources of omega-3s.

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