You’ve probably heard a lot about the healthy fat omega-3, which can be found in foods like fish or avocado, but do you know that omega-3 is not just one healthy fat? “Omega-3” actually applies to both eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids (also known by their more pronounceable names of “EPA” and “DHA,” respectively).
Americans spend over a billion dollars every year on omega-3 supplements. These acids are credited with supporting a healthy heart, but they actually do a lot more than that.
Omega-3 in Your Daily Diet
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy question to answer. In much the same way that different amounts of alcohol can affect you differently than it can the person next to you, so too can omega-3. Your body processes omega-3 differently depending on your age, weight, the type of omega-3 you are consuming, and how much omega-6 you consume, among other factors.
With this in mind, while there is no set amount to cover everyone, some health organizations recommend that healthy adults ingest about 250 to 500 milligrams per day of both EPA and DHA. There is also another acid, alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA), which is found in flaxseeds and hemp, but your body has to do double the work to get even remotely close to enjoying its benefits.
What this means is that the body can actually break down ALA into EPA and DHA, but it takes twice as long to do it, and your body must have enough enzymes present to do it, which many people actually lack. So to use an analogy, rather than breaking open the coconut to get to its juice, you might as well just drink coconut juice directly from a can; you get the same benefit while doing half the work.
Omega-3 and Pregnancy
Pregnant and nursing women actually require more omega-3 in their diets, though different health organizations differ on that amount as well. American and Canadian health organizations recommend consuming at least 500 milligrams per day while European health organizations actually recommend a minimum of 200.
Omega-3 is crucial to a pregnant woman’s diet especially. Research has shown that women who experience an omega-3 deficiency are more likely to experience preeclampsia, premature births, and low birth weights. If the child is born healthy, the lack of omega-3 in his or her mother’s diet can contribute to the child’s hyperactivity later on.
If a mother’s diet is rich in omega-3, the child can also benefit in the areas of visual and cognitive development, and he or she may even experience fewer allergies as a result.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6
Earlier I touched on how the amount of omega-6 you consume affects how much omega-3 you should be eating. Let’s get one thing straight: omega-6 is nothing like omega-3. Omega-6 can actually be considered to be omega-3’s evil cousin.
With that being said, you can probably see where I’m going with this. Most Americans eat far more omega-6 than is good for them. Envision a scale: the side with the omega-6 on its plate is far closer to the ground than is the omega-3 side.
Omega-6 is found in processed oils, particularly trans fats like those found in burgers and fries, mozzarella sticks, donuts – all of those foods that taste as good as they are bad for you. So now you know why we, as a nation, eat a lot more of omega-6 than we do omega-3 – if we substituted fish for fries, we’d probably be a lot healthier.
It goes without saying that the less omega-6 you eat, the less omega-3 you’ll need to eat to counteract the omega-6. What’s important to remember is that any recommendation for how much omega-3 you need to consume that does not take into account the amount of omega-6 you consume is inaccurate.
It is not an easy thing to do to try to balance the omega-3 versus omega-6 foods in your diet – far from it. The best advice I can offer is the same advice that is offered time and time again: cut back on processed foods and on eating out, and try to eat cleaner.
Avoid corn, cottonseed, and soybean oil – basically, try to avoid regularly eating anything that comes in a box or a package, and steer clear of restaurant meals, since most of them are still made with these oils because they are, in a word, cheap.
Now you can see why it is so tricky to nail down just how much omega-3 you need to consume each day. How can a health organization tell you how much omega-3 to eat when they have no idea how much omega-6 you personally consume each day?
It’s impossible to know what everyone eats each day and what their particular body types are, so it is impossible to recommend a specific amount of omega-3 that would cover every person’s diet.
Health Benefits of Omega-3
I mentioned earlier how omega-3 can help with heart health but that it provides a host of other health benefits as well. Let’s take a look at some of them.
- Heart Health: Studies have shown that folks who consumed about 850 milligrams of EPA and DHA on a daily basis over a period of three and a half years had a 25 percent lower risk of heart attacks and a whopping 45 percent lower risk of sudden death.
- Depression/Anxiety: Taking a higher dose of omega-3 (so from between 200 and 2,500 milligrams per day) may reduce symptoms associated with both depression and anxiety.
- Memory: One study showed that elderly folks who consumed 900 milligrams of DHA over the course of 24 weeks saw improvement in their memories. Interestingly, another study found that when giving both placebo pills and omega-3 to their group, verbal fluency scores improved after four months on 800 milligrams a day of the omega-3.
- Cancer: A diet high in omega-3 and fish can reduce your risk of prostate, colon, and breast cancer. It remains unknown just how much of these products you need in your diet in order to reduce your cancer risk, but is it a good idea to eat a healthy amount of it just the same.
- Pain/Impairment: 300 milligrams of krill oil each day improved one group’s arthritic symptoms after taking supplements for only seven days. 14 days proved to be even more beneficial. Much research has shown that krill oil is actually better for you than your standard fish oil.
These are just a few of the ways in which you can benefit from regularly consuming omega-3 in your diet. Other such benefits include the reduction of asthma in children, improved eye and skin health, improved mental disorders (like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), improved sleep, reduced menstrual pain, and much more.
Being Careful with Omega-3
After reading this, you might be excited to start adding more omega-3 to your diet, but you need to be careful not to consume too much of it. As with everything else, everything in moderation.
Though, here is where the total amount you should consume each day differs yet again. The FDA says you should consume no more than 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 per day while the EFSA says you can have up to 5,000 milligrams in your daily diet.
Something that should be kept in mind with each of these recommendations is that diets in Europe are very different from diets in America. And of course, as mentioned earlier, everyone’s bodies are different and need different amounts of things at different times.
So what can happen if you eat too much omega-3? Well, for one thing, it can act as a blood thinner, which is why you may be told to stop taking omega-3 supplements if you are preparing for surgery.
Some omega-3 supplements, like cod liver oil, have also been found to have higher concentrations of vitamin A. Taking too much vitamin A can actually be toxic, especially if you’re also eating vitamin A with the other foods that you eat.
If you needed any further convincing, it has never been proven that taking more than 5,000 milligrams of omega-3 per day has been beneficial to anyone in any way, so there is no need to risk it. Taking up to 5,000 milligrams is assumed to be safe, but most people don’t need more than 3,000 milligrams a day in their diets.
So, in conclusion, it is probably best to speak with your doctor before incorporating any supplements into your daily diet. You should also always follow the instructions on the label for any supplements that you are considering taking, and remember that different people have different needs. You may require more or less omega-3 in your diet than the person next to you.
The healthiest window of omega-3 consumption is between 250 milligrams to a maximum of 3,000 milligrams each day of combined EPA and DHA, unless prescribed to consume a different amount by your doctor.
Do you regularly take omega-3? Have you noticed any improvements to your own health as a result? Let us know in the comments.