Omega-3 fats are a type of extra-healthy fat found particularly in:
- a few types of nuts and seeds, such as flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp
- marine life, such as cold water fish, shellfish, and algae
Omega-3 fatty acids help keep cold-water marine life from freezing.
Because they stay liquid at low temperatures, omega-3s are like natural antifreeze.
Omega-3s come in different forms.
The most important omega-3 fats are the following:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
Most plant-based sources (e.g. flax, walnuts, and chia) are rich in ALA while marine sources (such as fish and algae) are rich in EPA and DHA.
Our bodies mostly use DHA/EPA, though ALA has some unique benefits of its own.
ALA can be converted to DHA/EPA, but most people convert very little of it. So it’s hard to get enough DHA/EPA from most plant sources like flax seeds.
We’ll give you some suggestions for improving your omega-3 fats below.
Why are omega-3 fats good?
Omega-3 fats do all kinds of awesome things for the body.
For instance, they can:
- keep our hearts and brains healthy
- lower inflammation
- improve our cells’ communication
- keep joints mobile
- help us stay lean
- help build muscle
There is strong evidence that omega-3s can:
- improve your blood lipids (like triglycerides and HDL-C)
- help reduce some symptoms of depression and anxiety
- help reduce some ADHD symptoms
- help regulate our metabolism and blood sugar
And other evidence, though not as strong, for:
- preventing cancer
- preserving memory
- eye health
- decreasing liver fat
Fats: Your body’s signal system
Not all fat we eat gets stored on our bellies and butts.
Our bodies like to use healthy fats to do other important stuff, such as:
- Make fat-based tissues, like our brains and the fatty sheath that insulates our spinal cord and nerves.
- Make many hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen.
- Make the membranes for all our cells.
So the fat we consume literally becomes part of every one of our cells.
Fat can powerfully influence how our cells communicate and interact.
For example, fat can affect signaling molecules that influence blood vessel constriction, inflammation, blood clotting, pain, airway constriction, etc.
Since our brains are fat-based, changes in fat composition can affect how nerve impulses are transmitted. This can affect our moods, how well we think, our overall mental health, and even our brain’s longevity.
And omega-3s may be some of the most powerful and important fats for our bodies.
Should you supplement with omega-3 fats?
The answer to this question depends on you.
If you’re a Level 1 eater (basic) just trying to get the hang of healthy fats:
Keep it simple.
Focus on getting a range of healthy fats from whole foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, etc. (Check our healthy fats list for guidelines.)
And if you like fish, try bringing it into your life more regularly: A little sushi here, a little smoked salmon there… it adds up (and tastes good).
Don’t worry about anything else for now.
If you’re a Level 2 eater (intermediate):
Consider adjusting your omega-3 fat intake.
Do you consistently eat fatty cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines two to three times per week?
Our guess: If you don’t live in Japan, Crete, Scandinavia, some other coastal fishing village, or up in the Arctic where you’re hunting your own seal and whale to eat, you probably don’t.
If you’re a Level 2 eater and not regularly eating fatty fish, then consider omega-3 supplementation as a Level 2 strategy.
Supplement daily with 3–6 grams of total fish oil, giving you around 1–2 grams of total EPA+DHA.
This dose is high enough to give you all the health benefits listed above, but very safe.
You can also supplement with krill oil or algae oil (which is plant-based) instead.
With these products, use smaller doses: Aim for 300 mg of total EPA+DHA from these.
While eating plenty of flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, and maybe taking a little flax oil are good things, they don’t replace eating or supplementing with EPA and DHA.
We typically don’t recommend you supplement with flax oil pills. You’re better off eating the ground seeds, and taking fish oil instead.
Summary of recommendations
Here’s a recap of our healthy fat recommendations.
- If possible, start by eating more fatty fish.
- Eat other naturally occurring fats, such as avocados, coconuts, nuts and seeds.
- Cut way down on industrial vegetable/seed oils.
If you’re a Level 1 eater, stop here.
If you’re a Level 2 eater, and you’re considering omega-3 supplementation:
- Read the label on your omega-3 supplement to see the total EPA/DHA.
- Fish oil: Take whatever dose will give you 1–2 grams of total EPA/DHA (about 3–6 grams for most commercial formulations)
- Krill or algae oil (plant-based): Take whatever dose will give you 300 mg total EPA/DHA.
- Other omega-3 plant sources (such as flax or chia seeds) won’t give you the EPA/DHA you need. But feel free to eat them as whole foods.