Omega 3: You're Doing it Wrong

oily fish, salmon, tuna, health source of omega 3 fatty acids
Fish like salmon and tuna are great sources or Omega 3, right?

Eat oily fish at least twice a week. Have chia & flax seed puddings. Snack on some walnuts!!! Sound familiar? These days, most people know that they need to get enough Omega-3 fatty acids into their diets but as with many subjects in nutrition, a lot of people are unsure of the best way to do it. Truth be told, most people who think they are getting enough Omega-3 are probably way off the mark.


Omega 3: What and Why?

Just so we’re all on the same page: Fats and oils are made up of molecules called fatty acids. There are many different types of fatty acids and they can differ by their length and by being saturated (like in meat and dairy products), monounsaturated (like in olive oil and avocados) or polyunsaturated (like in some nuts, seeds and fish).


Omega-3s are a particular type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that can be relatively long (most vegetarian sources) or very long (mostly marine/fish sources). And just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, getting enough Omega-3 in your diet is ESSENTIAL to good health. In fact Omega-3s are known as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and supplementing them in your diet can have a huge benefit on your health: reducing risk of heart disease {1,2}, reducing risk of diabetes {2,3}, reducing inflammation {4} and even building more muscle and improving muscle mass maintenance {2}. Long story short, you want them in your diet.


Where to find Omega 3

As I mentioned earlier you can get Omega-3 fatty acids from both plant and animal sources with some of the best/most common sources being:


1. Fatty Fish

Such as Salmon, Tuna, Trout, Mackerel, Sardines, Anchovies etc. {5} which are probably the most common source of long-chain EFAs in a standard diet. You should remember that white fish is so low in fat that it doesn't have enough to be considered a good source or Omega-3.    


2. Omega 3 Enriched Eggs

From chickens fed a diet with either fish meal or seaweed (which contains long chain Omega-3 fatty acids too {5}.


3. Seeds

Such as flaxseeds (linseeds) {6} and chia {7}, which are now incredibly popular in the world of “health foods”.    

4. Supplements

Which can be made from any combination of some of the food sources I listed above (fish oil, flax oil, hemp oil) along with some more recent appearances on the market which include krill oil (extracted from tiny sea crustaceans) and omega-3 rich algal oil (extracted from micro-seaweeds which are naturally rich in long-chain omega-3s) {5,8,9}.


Don’t be fooled:

I frequently read on plant-based blogs that foods like pumpkins and leafy greens are great sources or Omega-3 fats. While they may have a good ratio of Omega-3s, unfortunately, these foods are so low in total fat that you couldn’t possible eat enough of them to meet your Omega-3 needs. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet kids (unless you read it on this site).

So, which source of Omega 3 is best?

Well, to decide that, there is something very, very important to know about Omega-3s: the shorter Omega-3s from plant sources (like flax seed and chia) need to be converted to longer, more biologically active Omega-3s, called EPA and DHA in the body. EPA and DHA are already pre-formed in fish oil so it cuts out one of the steps in the process. It’s really important to know that it’s the levels of EPA and DHA (not plant-based Omega-3) in the body that seem to have the best effects on health, such as reducing rates of cardiovascular disease {13,14} and diabetes {3}.


Flax Seeds & Chia ARE NOT your best options

While the human the body has the enzymes to turn the plant Omega-3 (known as ALA or α-Linolenic Acid) into, first, EPA and then DHA, it is a very inefficient process. In fact there is less than 10% conversion to DHA in women {10} and less than 3% in men {11} meaning you need quite a large amount of plant Omega-3 to produce enough EPA and DHA. For example, one trial showed that even 27g/day of flax oil (one of the richest sources of ALA) only moderately increases EPA and has little effect on DHA levels {12}.


Let’s look at that again: 27g of oil, as a supplement that doesn't have much of a benefit??? 27g of oil (about 3 tablespoons) is 243 calories which means getting enough Omega-3 from vegetarian sources is not easy if you’re on a reduced-calorie diet.


On top of that, if you eat the seeds whole (which a lot of people do) they just pass right through your digestive system without you absorbing any of the oil. If you’re going to continue using them, at least grind them up before eating them.


Fish isn't perfect either

While fatty fish is a good source of pre-formed EPA and DHA, there are concerns about contamination from heavy metals such as mercury {5} which might actually counter act some of the health benefits of the Omega-3s. Also, not everyone likes or wants to eat fish and the last thing I would do is force someone to eat something that would make them gag.


So if fish isn’t the best option and seeds are a poor choice, what’s the best way to get enough Omega-3?


The Best Omega 3 Source is...

Supplements… yup, you read correctly. The most efficient way to get quality Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet is probably by taking a high quality supplement. You even have 3 options.


  • Purified & Concentrated Fish Oil: it’s possible to remove certain heavy metals and other pollutants from fish oil and to concentrate the amount of EPA & DHA in each pill meaning you need to take less {15}.
  • Krill Oil: As I mentioned earlier, krill oil is an excellent source of EPA & DHA which may be naturally lower in contaminants due to krill's position, low on the food chain {16}. The only problem is that it’s not suitable for people with a shellfish allergy.
  • Marine Algal Supplements: This is by far the best option for vegetarians and vegans as marine algae is the only plant-based supplement to contain the pre-formed long-chain Omega-3, DHA.

How Much Should I Take?

While it’s hard to be sure about the best daily intake, my general recommendation, based off of the doses used in many trials {2} is to take a supplement that provides you with 1-3g of combined EPA & DHA/day (not 1-3g of total oil). At that dose, a supplement is by far the easiest and lowest-calorie way to meet your Omega-3 needs.


Eat well, folks.


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  2. Jeromson S, Gallagher IJ, Galloway SDR, Hamilton DL. Omega-3 fatty acids and skeletal muscle health. Marine Drugs. 2015. p. 6977–7004.
  3. Virtanen JK, Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Uusitupa M, Tuomainen TP. Serum omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and risk of incident type 2 diabetes in men: The kuopio ischemic heart disease risk factor study. Diabetes Care. 2014;37(1):189–96.
  4. Mesa MD, Buckley R, Minihane AM, Yaqoob P. Effects of oils rich in eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids on the oxidizability and thrombogenicity of low-density lipoprotein. Atherosclerosis. 2004;175(2):333–43.
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  8. Araujo P, Zhu H, Breivik JF, Hjelle JI, Zeng Y. Determination and structural elucidation of triacylglycerols in krill oil by chromatographic techniques. Lipids. 2014;49(2):163–72.
  9. Geppert J, Kraft V, Demmelmair H, Koletzko B. Microalgal docosahexaenoic acid decreases plasma triacylglycerol in normolipidaemic vegetarians: a randomised trial. Br J Nutr . 2006;95(4):779–86.
  10. Burdge GC, Wootton S a. Conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to eicosapentaenoic, docosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in young women. Br J Nutr. 2002;88(4):411–20.
  11. Burdge GC, Jones AE, Wootton SA. Eicosapentaenoic and docosapentaenoic acids are the principal products of alpha-linolenic acid metabolism in young men. Br J Nutr. 2002;88(4):355–63.
  12. Schwab US, Callaway JC, Erkkila AT, Gynther J, Uusitupa MI, Jarvinen T. Effects of hempseed and flaxseed oils on the profile of serum lipids, serum total and lipoprotein lipid concentrations and haemostatic factors. Eur J Nutr. 2006;45:470–7.
  13. de Oliveira Otto MC, Wu JH, Baylin A, Vaidya D, Rich SS, Tsai MY, Mozaffarian D. Circulating and dietary omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and incidence of CVD in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. J Am Heart Ass. 2013;2(6), e000506.
  14. Wu JHY, Lemaitre RN, King IB, Song X, Sacks FM, Rimm EB, et al. Association of plasma phospholipid long-chain omega-3 fatty acids with incident atrial fibrillation in older adults: The cardiovascular health study. Circulation. 2012;125(9):1084–93.
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  16. Nash SMB, Schlabach M, Nichols PD. A Nutritional-toxicological assessment of antarctic krill oil versus fish oil dietary supplements. Nutrients. 2014;6(9):3382–402.


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