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Omega 3 fatty acids 'essential' for human body

Jo Christian Oterhals

Omega 3 fatty acids are labeled as “essential,” meaning it’s something the human body needs, but can’t make itself. This means the only way to get Omega 3s is by eating certain foods.

This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Dr. Kerri-Ann Jennings about Omega 3s. Jennings is a registered dietician, nutritionist, as well as former editor for Eating Well Magazine.

Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat, and there is more than one type.

“The three main ones are called ALA, DHA, and EPA. ALA is found in plant foods, so you can find it in things like walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, canola oil,” said Jennings.

“And then the other ones, DHA and EPA, you can mostly find them in marine foods, so some algae has them, but also in higher quantities you find them in oily fish, like salmon, sardines, and trout.”

The human body needs both kinds of the Omega 3s, and can convert ALA to DHA or EPA, but not very efficiently.

“It’s important for you to get some fish in your diet, and the recommendation is to get at least two servings of fish in your diet per week … and then also to get nuts and seeds in your diet, so you are getting the ALA as well,” said Jennings.

Credit HealthAliciousNess / Flickr
Brown Flax Seeds

That doesn’t mean that seeds and fish are the only ways to get Omega 3s, as food producers will add things like fish oil to products like peanut butter and milk, which wouldn’t normally have Omega 3 fatty acids.

“It’s become very popular to have Omega 3 supplements and those … you can get a vegetarian one that’s all ALA, or you can get a fish oil supplement that has EPA and DHA in high quantities,” said Jennings.

While these supplements might be popular, nothing beats getting your Omega 3s from the original source.

“[In] whole foods all the nutrients are packed together, they work together synergistically,” said Jennings. “So when we try to isolate what is it about this food or that food is good for us, I think we might be missing a lot of the things that help the entire food to be good for us.”

In 2002, the Institute of Medicine set a number recommending 1.1 grams a day for women and 1.6 grams a day for men.

Initially the institute’s recommendation said only 10 percent of these Omega 3s needed to come from EPA or DHA, but that number has risen since 2002.

“As more of the science has emerged on the importance of the EPA and DHA specifically, that part of the number has gotten bumped up, and I think the current recommendations are 250-500 milligrams of those particular types of Omega 3 fatty acids,” said Jennings.