They’re good for your heart, your brain, and so much more. Yet even nutritionists fall short on this crucial nutrient. Here’s why omega-3s are so beneficial and how to up your intake.
It’s before 6 a.m., and I can smell the freshly brewed coffee that I can’t yet drink. First, I have to fill four empty circles on a little piece of paper with blood from my finger. But—staring down two lancets—I can’t bring myself to prick my finger. Instead, my husband picks up both the lancets, grabs one of my fingers, and then prepares (practically gleefully) for this surgery-esque moment.
My goal is to learn what my omega-3 blood levels are. Omega-3 fats are the structural material of virtually every cell in our bodies. There are three main types of omega-3 fats—EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)—also known as polyunsaturated, or “healthy,” fats. They are, perhaps, best known for their heart health benefits. The science is particularly strong in the roles two of them—DHA and EPA—play in heart health. But research suggests all three types of omega-3s offer much more beyond that, from brain health to eye, skin, and hair health. And one study found that inadequate omega-3 intake might shorten your life span and could be more dangerous than consuming a lot of trans fat (aka partially hydrogenated oils).
Omega-3s are essential fats, meaning our bodies can’t make them and, therefore, we must get them from our diet. The recommended daily dose for omega-3s (really DHA and EPA) has a wide range depending on the governing body: from 250 to 1,000mg per day for the general population. And at least one group, the American Heart Association, translates that into a diet recommendation: eat two (3- to 5-ounce) seafood servings every week. But only 1 out of every 10 consumers actually meets that target. Plus, the “standard American diet” includes far less omega-3 fats than what’s considered optimal. Learning this, and being reminded of the benefits of omega-3s, spurred me to get my levels checked.
When my test results were ready, Doug Bibus, PhD, president of Lipid Technologies, emailed me my numbers, and a few days later we got on the phone to talk through them. Turns out, I’m merely average (a sad reality for someone who legitimately loves seafood and is a nutritionist). My total omega-3 score was 5.3%; the typical score for an American is 4.8%, (so, yay, I am marginally above average), but the target level is more than 9%, a number I’m fairly far from.
Another routine part of the test was to assess my ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Omega-6s are omega-3s’ lesser known cousins, and, like omega-3s, they are also essential. Omega-6s primarily come from nuts; seeds; plant-based oils, such as vegetable and soybean; and many processed foods (crackers, salad dressings, fried foods) made with these ingredients. For a long time there’s been advice to shun the 6s because of their inflammatory properties. But not all inflammation is bad; inflammation helps blood clot, for example, and heal cuts. It’s when our 6 to 3 ratio is too far out of balance—according to some research—that there might be concern. And, in general, Americans seem to be shifting their intake toward consuming more omega-6s than 3s: The ratio used to be close to 1-to-1; the average American’s is now 8.1-to-1. My results showed my ratio to be 7-to-1, and the target is less than 5-to-1.
And so, the eager nutritionist in me immediately wanted to troubleshoot with Bibus how to improve my omega-3 levels and shift my omega ratio.
On our call he suggested a supplement, and I knew it would have to be in gummy form because I have a thing about swallowing pills. But those gummies, to me, taste wretched. So, I pivoted: “I really want to do this as much as possible with food.” I mean, after all, I work for a food magazine. We spent the rest of the call brainstorming “sneaky” ways to boost my omega-3 intake: time to switch to omega-3-fortified milk and omega-3-enriched eggs, try out some flaxseed-infused baked goods, and ante up for grass-fed dairy.
With more than 27,000 published studies on omega-3s, they’re one of the most researched nutrients. Early data showed a correlation between omega-3s and lower rates of cardiovascular disease in Greenland’s native peoples. It was these (now-debunked) findings that initially spurred more research.
The strongest data are still with heart health and triglyceride management, which also benefits your heart. One study found that 4g of EPA/DHA a day significantly lowered triglycerides and VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein, the really bad type of lipoprotein that’s been referred to as BBs to your arteries). Consuming those 4g also raised “good” HDL cholesterol and lowered total cholesterol. Omega-3s also might lower blood pressure, slow the growth of plaque in your arteries, and even decrease abnormal heart rhythms.
It’s not just your heart that benefits from a healthy dose of omega-3 fats. The research on cognitive decline appears promising (those with brain diseases typically do have lower levels of omega-3s). The premise of this research is that omega-3s are important fats within the brain, with unsaturated fats making up about a quarter of total brain fat, nearly all of which are from DHA. That being said, research isn’t clear yet if adding more omega-3s to one’s diet can slow or prevent cognitive disease progression. Data also suggests fish oil might play a role in eye health because, like the brain, most of the lipids in our eyes are DHA.
But—as with most nutrition science—there are skeptics. Some studies from the past few years suggest omega-3s, at least in supplement form, might not be a “magic bullet,” as they’re often sold. For example, a literature search published in 2016 concluded that the evidence is lacking to support routinely taking omega-3 supplements to prevent cardiovascular disease. And a meta-analysis, published in 2012 in the prestigious journal JAMA, found omega-3 supplementation was not associated with fewer deaths, from stroke or any other cause.
The key is considering all the data. Although some studies and reviews haven’t shown promise, others clearly do. And generally, getting omega-3s from food seems to be a safe bet. In Japan and Greenland, where seafood is aplenty, data shows residents have some of the highest omega-3 levels and the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease.
That said, surveys suggest we aren’t eating enough oily fish: Americans’ median intake of fish high in omega-3s is about 0.15 ounce a day. So for some, adding a supplement to your regimen might be worth talking to your doctor about.
In fact, after that sobering call with Bibus, I forced myself to take a daily omega-3 gummy despite not being much of a supplement gal. I also doubled down on all things omega-3: I got more serious about eating biweekly seafood meals, I traded my usual milk and eggs in for omega-3-enriched versions, I picked up butter and yogurt made with grass-fed milk, and I made (omega-3-rich) canola oil my go-to cooking oil.
Next up? Time to retest. At the moment those results aren't ready. But as soon as they're in, I'll update this story. Keep an eye out, and in a week or so, I'll let you know what happened.
This story contains additional reporting by Chris Mohr, PhD, RD