Different Sources of Omega-3s
Advisory by Khor Sulin, Guardian Patient Care Pharmacist
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the essential fatty acids required by our body for good health. Of the many types of omega-3 fatty acids, there are three important ones which play pivotal roles in achieving good health; namely, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Based on scientific studies, the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids may include:
- prevention of cardiovascular illnesses, e.g. heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke or angina;
- improving cholesterol levels by lowering triglycerides and elevating high-density lipoprotein (HDL) good cholesterol levels;
- prevention of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis or osteoarthritis;
- supporting brain health e.g. decreasing age-related memory loss or cognitive function impairment.
Of the three omega-3 fatty acids, ALA cannot be synthesised by the body and must be included in our diet. On the other hand, our body can convert a small amount of dietary ALA to EPA and DHA through a series of metabolic processes.
However, as most people may not get sufficient ALA from their daily diet, it is also essential to supplement EPA and DHA from food sources. Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from both plant (mostly ALA) and animal sources (mostly EPA and DHA).
Omega-3s from plants
Vegetables – A wide variety of vegetables are good sources of ALA, e.g. cauliflower, turnip greens, kale, spinach, and Romaine lettuce.
Fruits – Some fruits, for example blueberries or raspberries, provide a considerable amount of ALA; however the amount of ALA may be too low to be useful under normal consumption.
Legumes – Soybeans and other soy products (e.g. bean curd, soybean oil) are also considered good sources of ALA.
Seed/nuts – Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are excellent sources of ALA. Plant oil – Olive oil and canola oil contain ALA.
Grain products – Some grain products, for example bread or pasta, may be enriched with EPA and DHA. The nutritional details can be identified from the label on the packaging.
Omega-3s from animals
Fish – Fish is one of the primary sources from which people usually get their omega-3s (DHA/EPA). Fishes rich in omega-3s include salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, anchovies and herring. Extracts of these fishes are commonly used in the making of omega-3 supplements.
Krill – Krill are small, shrimp-like creatures found in all the world’s oceans. Krill oil has been gaining its popularity as an excellent source of omega-3s (DHA/EPA). Besides, krill oil also contain astaxanthin, which is an antioxidant that is not found in fish oil.
Milk and alternatives – Some dairy products like milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs may also be fortified with omega-3s (ALA/DHA/EPA).
Marine algae - Oil that is derived from sea algae (a plant-like organism) contains DHA, which is suitable for vegetarians.
Where you can obtain omega-3s heavily depends on the type of diet you follow. Generally, healthy individuals with no food restrictions should include ALA-containing food in their daily diet, and also 2-3 servings of fish per week as their main source of EPA and DHA. Vegetarians who can consume dairy products should include eggs, milk, cheese or yoghurt in their diet as a source of omega-3s.
For strict vegans, selected plant-based foods which contain omega-3s can be consumed. As these foods mainly provide ALA, vegans may need to consider taking some DHA and EPA supplements. This is because the ability of the body to convert ALA to the other two types of omega-3 is inefficient and may be compromised due to certain circumstances (e.g. genetics, gender, lifestyle, dietary factors).
In a nutshell, omega-3s are necessary for healthy bodily functions. Therefore, a better understanding of the different sources of omega-3s can help determine if you are getting sufficient omega-3s from your daily food intake or whether additional omega-3 supplements should be taken.
There are myriads of omega-3-containing supplements in the market, which can help you raise your omega-3 levels should dietary intake be insufficient. However, it is recommended to consult a healthcare professional first if you are on blood thinning or anticoagulant medications. This is due to the potential risk of increased bleeding if omega-3 supplements are taken together with these medications.