Omega-3 fatty acids are the superstars of healthy fatty acids, improving the health of the heart, brain, skin and other internal organs and enhancing quality of life in myriad ways.
A fundamental building block for the body, this essential nutrient is part of the cell membrane and plays a role in the function of cell receptors. Omega-3 fatty acids work wonders for healthy bodies, making brains smarter and hearts stronger. For bodies fighting illness, this fatty acid is one of the most powerful nutrients, able to battle conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) to cancer to depression.
There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids, which are also called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Scientists have not determined whether one type is healthier than the other. At any rate, most Americans lack both types.
Among the many health benefits of omega-3 fats, evidence is strongest for heart health. Omega-3's lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation.
Omega-3 vs omega-6
Americans currently eat 15 time as much omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3s. Some experts recommend a ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 for omega-6-to-omega-3 consumption, but others argue that both are healthy and such a ratio does not help evaluate the healthfulness of one's diet.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
These long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), come from fatty fish like salmon and sardines. If you were ever forced to consume cod liver oil as a child, here's why: DHA is integral to the development of young brains and nervous systems, while EPA influences behavior and mood. It's pretty key for the grown-up body too.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
This second type of omega-3 fatty acid comes from plants. Walnuts, flaxseed, plant oils including soybean and canola (rapeseed), and some green vegetables like kale and Brussels sprouts are good sources for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The body also converts a small amount of this fat into DHA and EPA. Studies show that healthy young men convert about 8 percent of dietary ALA into EPA and 0 to 4 percent into DHA, while healthy young women convert 21 percent of dietary ALA into EPA and 9 percent into DHA.
Don't confuse alpha-linolenic acid with linoleic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid, or with alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant sometimes also abbreviated as ALA.
How much you should have:
There is no single standard for recommended daily dosage of omega-3 fatty acids.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine, adult women require 1.1 grams of total omega-3's each day, while adult men require 1.6 grams. The European Commission recommends 2 grams of ALA and 200 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per day. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy people consume 500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per day (or eat fatty fish at least twice a week), in addition to ALA-rich oils and foods.
People with heart disease should consume 1 gram of combined EPA and DHA per day, ideally from oily fish. Fish oil capsules commonly contain 120 mg of DHA and 180 mg of EPA per capsule.