Most of us would benefit from eating more omega-3, as few people eat enough oily fish to get the recommended 450mg of beneficial long-chain omega 3s (EPA and DHA) every day. The long-chain omega 3 found in fish oil offers numerous benefits for the heart and circulation, brain, eyes and joints as well as helping to reduce inflammation associated with conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. If you don’t like eating fish, then omega-3 fish oil supplements are a great alternative.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid whose name comes from their chemical structure.
In omega-3s, the first double-bond (where a hydrogen atom is missing) is 3 carbon atoms from the omega (methyl) end of the molecule.
In contrast, the closely related omega-6s, the first double bond is at position 6.
Both types of fatty acid are oils at room temperature and act as essential building blocks to make cell membranes, sex hormones, and hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins.
Because of the position of their double bonds, your body handles omega-6s and omega-3s in different ways.
Omega-3 fatty acids are converted into substances (series 3 prostaglandins and series 5 leukotrienes) that help to reduce inflammation, while omega-6s are converted into substances (series 2 prostaglandins and series 4 leukotrienes) that promote inflammation in excess. The one exception is GLA (gammalinolenic acid), an omega-6 found in evening primrose oil, starflower (borage) and blackcurrant seed oils, which can reduce inflammation when intakes are sufficiently high.
Food sources of omega-3
Omega-3s are mainly derived from nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseed, hemp and fish oil (having originally come from the plankton on which these fish feed) plus grass-fed wild game meats such as venison and buffalo.
Omega-6s are mainly derived from vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower and corn oils.
As your cells can’t convert omega-6s into omega-3s (or vice versa), it’s important to obtain a balanced intake.
Most of us get too little omega-3
Our ancestors evolved on a diet where the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was optimally balanced at around one-to-one. The use of vegetable oils in modern processed foods mean that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in a typical Western diet is now between ten-to-one and twenty-to-one.
To make things more complicated, omega-3s have different effects in the body depending on their length. Those classed as short chain omega-3s (eg alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, with 18 carbon atoms) must be converted on to produce the important long-chain omega-3s EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid with 20 carbons), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid with 22 carbons) for optimal health. Unfortunately, this conversion from alpha-linolenic acid is inefficient, with only 5% to 10% of dietary ALA converted on to DHA.
The enzymes that perform the vital interconversion of omega-3s (eg delta-6–desaturase) are readily blocked by other diet and lifestyle factors such as:
- Excess intakes of omega-6s, sugar or alcohol
- Dietary lack of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium
- Crash dieting
- Smoking cigarettes and exposure to other toxins.
So even if you obtain a balanced intake of omega-3s in the form of short-chain ALA, you may still have a low level of the most beneficial long-chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA.
An estimated eight out of ten people do not get enough long-chain omega-3s as so few of us eat oily fish, which are the main dietary source. National surveys show that two out of three adults and nine out of ten teenagers eat no fish at all.
Some staple foods such as margarines, bread and milk are fortified to contain omega-3 oils, although these are usually added in the form of the short-chain omega-3, ALA. Although this helps to boost omega-3 intakes for those who do not each much fish, only a small amount is converted on to the long-chain EPA and DHA which provide the proven health benefits.
Fish oils (or algae oils if you are vegetarian) remain the best source of EPA and DHA.
Omega 3 recommended daily intake
The minimum desirable intake of long chain omega-3 fatty acids is around 450mg (0.45g) per day. Some experts suggest higher amounts of 1g EPA/DHA per day, which is equivalent to eating 2-3 medium servings of oily fish per week.
How much omega-3 is in fresh fish?
Oily fish that are excellent sources of omega 3 are kippers, salmon, mackerel and pilchards, all of which contain around 3g total long-chain omega 3 (DHA and EPA) per average portion.
Type Of Fish
Portion Size (grams)
Total long-chain omega-3 (DHA + EPA) per portion (grams)
|Pilchards (in tomato sauce)||110g||2.86g Excellent|
|Herring||150g||1.97g Very good|
|Fresh Tuna||150g||1.95g Very good|
|Trout||150g||1.73g Very good|
|Sardines in tomato sauce||100g||1.67g Very good|
|Tinned salmon (in brine, drained)||100g||1.55g Very good|
|Tinned Tuna (in oil, drained)||45g||0.17g Poor|
|Tinned Tuna (in bring, drained)||45g||0.08g Poor|
Oily fish intakes are officially capped
The presence of marine pollutants means that the maximum recommended intake of fish is capped. In the UK, for example, NHS guidelines advise that:
- Girls and women of child-bearing age should eat no more than two portions of oily fish a week to reduce exposure to mercury, dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) which could harm future pregnancies.
- Everyone else (boys, men and women who are past reproductive age) should eat no more than four portions of oily fish per week.
These intakes are further limited by the official recommendation to eat two portions of fish per week, one of which is oily fish.
Even though these two servings a week is less than ideal for optimum health, few of us actually achieve it. Average intakes are one-third of a portion of fish per week, with two-thirds of adults eating no fish at all.
Even if you eat white fish or canned tuna, you are likely to be deficient in omega-3 as these beneficial oils are only present in low quantities in white fish, and are extracted from tuna during processing to ensure a longer shelf life.
As a result of low intakes, average consumption of the beneficial long-chain omega-3s are in the region of 1g EPA plus DHA per week rather than the optimum 0.45g – 1g per day.
Farmed salmon versus wild salmon
Wild salmon have consistently higher proportions of long-chain omega-3s (20-40%) compared with farmed fish (9-26%).
This is due to changes in the way farmed salmon are fed. As a result, you now need to eat two portions of farmed salmon to obtain the same level of omega-3 as was present just a few years ago.
One exception to this is Lochmuir salmon available from Marks & Spencer who have taken steps to ensure the omega-3 levels of their salmon remains high.
If you buy farmed salmon, this is the one to go for!
Why EPA and DHA omega 3 are important for health
Increasing evidence shows that eating too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s promotes inflammation, and is linked with type 2 diabetes and obesity. A low omega-3 to omega-6 ratio also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as contributing to the inflammatory diseases such as eczema, asthma and arthritis.
The long-chain omega-3 fish oils, EPA and DHA, are increasingly recognised as protecting against heart disease and stroke. They also make up around 40% of brain cell membranes and play vital roles in memory and helping you think straight.
Omega-3 index for heart health
When it comes to heart health, a new risk factor for sudden cardiac death has been suggested, known as the omega-3 index. This is measured as the percentage of EPA and DHA among the total fatty acids found in red blood cells.
An omega-3 index of greater than 8% is associated with a 90% reduced risk for sudden cardiac death, compared to an omega-3 index of less than 4%. A high omega-3 index could become a new goal for cardiovascular health, and involve taking EPA and DHA supplements.
European authorities have already authorised health claims that the long-chain omega-3s are required for normal blood pressure, normal blood triglyceride levels, brain function, heart function, and vision, and are also important during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support the brain and eye development of developing babies.
Omega-3 health benefits
The best way to show the effectiveness of fish oils is to pool the results of as many randomised, placebo-controlled trials as possible and analyse them together. This will rule out any positive or negative findings that were due to chance alone. Known as a meta-analysis, this supports the benefits of taking fish oil supplements in preventing or treating many different health problems.
Omega-3 fish oils lower blood pressure
Data from 8 studies involving 56,000 people show that having a good circulating level of omega-3s – especially DHA can cut the risk of developing hypertension by 23%. No significant association with dietary fish intake was found, suggesting that supplements were important.
Omega 3 fish oils improve memory in older adults
Results from 28 trials involving over 6,700 people show that taking more than 1g DHA/EPA per day improved memory function in older adults with mild memory complaints.
Omega 3 fish oils improve depression
DHA plays an important structural role within brain cell membranes, improving their fluidity so that messages are passed on more rapidly from one cell to another. EPA is involved in cell signalling and also improves communication between brain cells. Findings from 13 studies involving 1233 people show that omega-3 fish oils have beneficial effects against depression in people with major depressive disorder.
Omega 3 fish oils protect against heart attack
Data from 15 studies involving fish-oil supplements or diets high in fish found that good intakes of fish oil significantly reduced the risk of death from any cause at any age, especially from heart attack, sudden cardiac death or stroke. Benefits were particularly pronounced for those who’d already experienced a heart attack and helped to prevent a second one from occurring.
Omega 3 fish oils reduce abnormal heart rhythms
Results from 15 studies, involving 692 people, show that taking fish-oil supplements has favourable effects on heart rhythm (heart rate variability) which may be an important mechanism underlying the heart benefits of fish oil in preventing sudden heart deaths.
Omega 3 fish oils improve chronic heart failure
Findings from 7 trials, involving 825 people with heart failure, show that fish oil supplements improve heart muscle strength, ability to pump blood and oxygen usage compared with placebo.
Omega 3 fish oils protect against stroke
Data from 38 trials involving 794,000 people found that good intakes of omega 3 fish oils reduced the risk of thrombotic stroke. For those eating 2-4 servings of fish a week risk of stroke was reduced by 6%, compared with those eating 1 serving a week or less. For those eating 5 or more servings a week, the risk of stroke was reduced by 12% compared with those eating 1 serving a week.
Omega 3 fish oils are beneficial in arthritis
Omega-3s help to reduce the level of inflammation in people with arthritis – especially those with rheumatoid arthritis. Omega 3 fatty acids may also reduce the associated higher risk of cardiovascular disease that occurs in people with rheumatoid arthritis, according to data from 18 trials involving 826 people.
Omega 3 fish oils improve pregnancy outcomes
Results from 21 trials involving over 10,800 pregnant women show that dietary fish oil during pregnancy was associated with reduced risk of preterm delivery and improved size of the newborn.
Omega 3 fish oils may prevent asthma in children
Findings from 11 studies, involving over 99,000 infants, children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, concluded that good intakes of omega-3 fish oil may help to prevent asthma in children.
Omega 3 deficiency symptoms
One of the most common signs of an essential fatty acid deficiency is dry, scaly, itchy skin – an annoying problem that is often seen in older people, especially on the shins.
Other signs associated with a lack of essential fatty acids can include:
- Dehydration and thirst
- Brittle hair and nails
- Hair loss
- Slower wound healing
- Hormone imbalances
- Low mood, emotional or behavioural difficulties.
Not everyone who is lacking in these oils have a severe enough deficiency to develop obvious symptoms, but the long-term health risks such as increased susceptibility to heart attack and stroke are more insidious and tend to creep up unnoticed.
Best omega 3 supplement dose
The limitations placed on eating deep-sea oily fish due to marine pollutants can be overcome by taking a daily omega-3 fish oil supplement made to a pharmaceutical standard known as GMP. These are screened to ensure low levels of pollutants, and are standardised to provide a consistent dose of purified oils.
The best omega 3 supplement dose depends on how much fish you eat on a regular basis.
If you eat two portions of fish every week, one of which is oily, you are meeting the minimum requirement and don’t need a fish oil supplement to prevent deficiency symptoms. However, for optimal health, you could take a supplement that provides 300mg to 500mg EPA plus DHA per day.
If you eat one portion of white fish a week, then a standard fish oil capsule that provides 450mg to 1g long-chain omega-3s (EPA plus DHA) is a good idea to keep your levels topped up.
If you eat no fish, then it’s an excellent idea to take a supplement that provides at least 600mg of the long-chain omega-3s EPA/DHA per day for general health, to prevent deficiency symptoms developing.
You can of course take more. The European Food Safety Authority have confirmed that long-term intakes of supplements providing up to 5g of EPA plus DHA per day (or up to 1g DHA alone per day) do not raise any safety concerns.
The range of omega 3 supplements
Several types of fish oil supplement are available, with omega-3s sourced from oily fish, krill or from the liver of cod. Vegetarian omega-3 supplements are also available from flaxseed (short chain omega-3 such as ALA) and algae sources (long-chain omega 3s such as DHA).
Omega-3 fish oil supplements
Omega-3 fish oils are extracted from the flesh of oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herrings, sardines, pilchards and mackerel. They are a rich source of both EPA and DHA which are derived from the micro-algae on which the fish feed.
Omega-3 fish oils offered in the body-ready, triglyceride (TG) form are most easily absorbed and used (a better bioavailability) and, paradoxically, lower blood triglyceride levels due to beneficial effects on the liver.
Cod liver oil supplements
The flesh of white fish contains very little DHA or EPA. Instead, as its name implies, cod liver oil is derived from the liver of cod. While cod liver naturally contains three times less omega-3 than the flesh of oily fish, these can be concentrated to provide a similar dose. Cod liver oil is popular because it also contains high amounts of both vitamin A and vitamin D which provide additional health benefits.
Krill oil supplements
Krill oil is derived from a shrimp-like, Antarctic crustacean. As well as providing EPA and DHA, it also contains two powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, which give it an attractive red colour. These pigments are derived from the algae on which krill feed, and are the same pigments that give flamingos their attractive pink plumage. The combination of omega-3s plus antioxidants make krill a popular ‘super-supplement’ for reducing inflammation.
Algae oil supplements
If you are vegetarian or allergic to fish, the oil extracted from marine algae is a good source of omega 3 EPA and DHA (and is the ultimate source of the omega-3s in fish). A typical capsule containing 250mg algae oil can provide 100mg of DHA.
Flaxseed oil supplements
Oil from mature linseed will provide the short-chain omega-3, ALA, of which some (typically less than 20%) can be converted on to the beneficial long-chain forms.
Sustainable fish oil supplements
Sustainability is increasingly important for marine products. If this matters to you, then look for Friend Of The Sea or Marine Stewardship Council certification on your fish oil supplements.
Friend Of The Sea only certifies omega-3 fish oil and cod liver products that originate from sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. This shows that products are ethically sourced, using selective fish methods that do not over-exploit fish stocks, threaten the marine food chain, or harm the seabed or coral reefs.
The Marine Stewardship Council certifies sustainability of wild capture species such as krill, a shrimp-like, Antarctic crustacean which is a rich source of the long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA plus two powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. Krill is a vital component of the marine food chain and this certification shows that a krill oil supplement does not impact on the feeding grounds of marine wildlife such as baleen whales, Antarctic Fur Seals and Adelie penguins.
Safety of fish oil supplements
Because of their blood thinning effect, people with clotting disorders or who take blood-thinning medication (eg warfarin) should seek advice from their doctor before taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement. However, researchers have found that no significant increase in blood clotting time is expected at total daily intakes of EPA and DHA of 3g per day, or less.
If you are pregnant, or planning to be, only take a fish oil supplement designed for pregnancy, and which will contain more DHA than EPA (to reduce blood thinning effects, and to support fetal brain and eye development). Algae DHA prenatal supplements are ideal during pregnancy.
Cod liver oil, which contains vitamin A, is not recommended during pregnancy.
Omega 3 conclusion
Most people would benefit from increasing their intake of omega-3 and cutting back on their intake of omega-6 to obtain a better balance and reduce inflammation.
Aim to eat more omega-3 rich:
- oily fish (2 to 4 portions per week) such as mackerel, herring, salmon, trout, sardines, pilchards, fresh tuna (not tinned)
- wild game meat such as venison and buffalo
- grass-fed beef
- omega-3 enriched eggs
- And consider taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement.
At the same time, cut out excess omega-6s by consuming less:
- omega-6 vegetable oils such as safflower oil, grape-seed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil or soybean oil (Replace with healthier oils such as rapeseed, olive, walnut or macadamia oils)
- margarines based on omega-6 oils such as sunflower or safflower oil
- convenience foods
- manufactured goods such as cakes, sweets and pastries.
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