Are you eating enough fish? You’ve probably heard the recommendation to eat fish at least two to three times a week to get omega-3 fatty acids. Not only are omega-3 fatty acids good for you, they are essential. And there are other sources besides fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential because the body needs them to function properly but can’t make them. They must come from food. Omega-3 fatty acids have a role in brain function, growth and development, inflammation and heart health.
“It’s pretty clear that omega-3s are good fats,” says Cleveland Clinic dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology (September 2017) reviewed results from numerous studies on the effects of fish oil supplements. Of 20 studies looking at the impact on rheumatoid arthritis, 16 found significant improvement in symptoms with the supplements, showing they can have an anti-inflammatory effect. Fewer studies have been done with osteoarthritis, but some suggest positive effects.
Types of Omega-3s
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They come from both marine sources (that is, fish) and plant sources.
Cold-water fish, such as salmon, trout and tuna, contain EPA and DHA. The plant form is ALA, and it is found mostly in nuts and seeds. Once ALA is consumed, the body converts it to EPA and then DHA.
In studies, EPA and DHA appear to be linked to the most health benefits. But that doesn’t mean ALA is not beneficial. “I tell patients to get omega-3 fatty acids in the form they’re most likely to eat,” says Kirkpatrick. “If you don’t like salmon but love walnuts, that’s how you’re going to get it.”
Kirkpatrick recommends getting omega-3 fatty acids primarily from food. But if you aren’t eating enough, consider taking a fish oil supplement.
Eating fish is a great way to get omega-3 fatty acids. But what you choose and how you prepare it also matter. “Wild-caught trout and salmon are the best sources,” says Kirkpatrick.
Wild-caught fish tend to have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and they eat a natural diet without antibiotics. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid all farmed fish. “Some fisheries are adhering to more sustainable practices, which means the fish are closer to wild caught,” she says.
There are many delicious ways to cook fish. Focus on recipes that call for grilling, baking or broiling. Steer clear of fish that’s deep-fat fried. Canned salmon and tuna are easy to eat in a sandwich or on a salad. Just don’t eat too much tuna, which may contain mercury.
Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, canola oil, chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds. Seeds and walnuts are easy to include in your diet by adding them to salads and smoothies.
If you decide to take a fish oil supplement, there are a few things to consider. Omega-3 fatty acids thin the blood, which is part of their beneficial effect on the heart. If you take a blood-thinning medication, talk to your doctor before taking a fish oil supplement.
Kirkpatrick emphasizes the need to evaluate the quality of fish oil supplements. Look for ones that are derived from wild-caught fish and don’t have a lot of additives. Start with a dose of 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA combined.