Fat has a bit of a bad wrap.
And while there are certain kinds of fats in foods that, when consumed in excess, can be bad for your health, our bodies also actually need some types of fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one such kind of essential fats.
And importantly, they are a fat that your body does not produce on its own.
Why is omega-3 important?
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for various bodily processes such as inflammation, heart health, and brain function.
When you do not get enough omega-3, you can be at risk of depression, heart disease, and other health problems.1
3 types of Omega-3
The three most important types of Omega-3 are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
ALA is mostly found in plants, while the latter two are typically found in animal foods like fish. 2
To help you make informed food and supplement choices, it is worth understanding the key differences between the three kinds.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is common in most diets. However, it is harder for your body to use.
Found in plants, your body then has to convert this omega-3 into EPA or DHA first, before it can use it for something other than energy.
Your body does not make this conversion efficiently, and only small amounts of the ALA will be changed over to EPA or DHA.3
What is not converted is then stored, or used for energy, in the same way most other fats are.4
Sources of ALA
ALA is found in foods such as kale, spinach, soybeans, purslane (a nutrient-heavy weed plant), walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp.
Flaxseed and rapeseed oil are also high in ALA, and it can occur in some animal fats also.5
Adult men need 1.6 grams of ALA a day, while women need 1.1 grams.6
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Your body needs eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) for producing molecules called eicosanoids, which reduce inflammation and are important for numerous other bodily functions.7
Sources of EPA
Fish oil is high in EPA, and studies have found that it may help reduce some of the symptoms of depression.
Another study found that menopausal women saw EPA reducing the number of hot flashes they experienced.8 EPA also has an impact on blood clotting.9
You will find high amounts of EPA in algae, herring, salmon, eel, shrimp, and sturgeon.
Dairy and meats also contain some EPA.10
Mackerel, tuna, and sardines can also be an affordable regular source of omega-3s.11 And edible seaweed is a great vegan option for getting some EPA.12
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is structurally important for your skin and your eyes.13
For this reason, baby formula is often fortified with DHA, as it can help lead to improved vision for infants.14
It is also highly concentrated in the grey matter of the brain15, and is important for brain development and function, as children grow, and for adults’ brain function as well.
DHA can also boost heart health. Insufficient amounts of DHA in the later stages of life has been linked to impaired brain function and the onset of Alzheimer’s. 16
DHA levels are also high in sperm cells.17
Interestingly, after being consumed, about a third of DHA is converted into EPA.18
Sources of DHA
Though the two types of omega-3s have different functions, and are structurally different as well, DHA is found in similar foods to EPA, particularly fatty fish.
There are at least eight other Omega-3s, but they are not considered essential.
They include hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA), stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosatrienoic acid (ETE), and eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA).19
There are no formal recommended amounts of daily consumption of EPA and DHA, though health organisations tend to agree that 250 to 500 milligrams of both types combined, is enough.20
Pregnant people also need a bit more, as DHA is essential for both the developing foetus and the mother.
People who are vegan may struggle to get the necessary amount of omega-3s. In that case, it may be worth considering supplements.
In addition, typical diets these days include around 10 times more omega-6s than omaga-3s.
Omega-6s mostly come from refined vegetable oils.
Experts believe a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 2:1. This ratio is important, as the two omega types compete for the same enzymes.22
Last Updated: 8th February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile