If you type omega-3 into your search engine you will get a vast amount of information, as well as numerous companies advertising their supplements. But are these supplements recommended? And what do we need to eat to get omega-3 fats into our diets?
Omega-3 is a family of fats that are important for health. Omega-3 fatty acids (called polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs) come in different forms: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) cannot be made in the body so must be eaten in our diet. It has important functions and is needed to make other omega-3 fats; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is these that have the most direct health benefits.
Only small amounts of EPA and DHA are formed from ALA and this is a slow process. Therefore, the most effective way of ensuring we are getting enough EPA and DHA is to eat foods rich in these fats. Fish and especially oily fish are good sources of both EPA and DHA. It is recommended to include oily fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, pilchards, herring, trout and tuna once a week. One portion of oily fish for an adult is equal to one small tin or 140g of fresh or frozen fish. Canned tuna is not regarded as oily, as the processing of tuna during canning reduces the fat content of the fish to a low level. White fish should be included also once a week but contains far less omega-3 fats compared to oily fish.
For those who do not like or cannot tolerate fish, you can get omega-3 fats from the following foods: nuts and seeds such as walnuts, chia and pumpkin seeds; vegetable oils for example rapeseed and linseed; soya and soya products e.g. beans, milk and tofu; and green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale). Other foods such as certain yoghurt, bread, spreads and milk can be fortified with omega-3 and can be helpful to include as well as some eggs.
There are currently no UK recommendations for the consumption of omega-3 supplements as there is not enough evidence that they benefit in healthy adults and children. It is best to try and get omega-3 fats from foods (as above). The following advice below may be helpful if you find it difficult to include those foods and wish to take a supplement (please discuss with your GP prior to taking supplements as fish oil supplements can interact with certain medications):
- Look for omega-3 oil rather than fish liver oil (e.g. cod liver tablets).
- Check the vitamin A content -The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advises that if you take supplements containing vitamin A, you should not have more than a total of 1.5mg (1500ug) a day from food and supplements combined. It is very important to not take supplements containing vitamin A if you are pregnant or planning a baby.
- Check labels for DHA and EPA content – stick to the daily amount that would be provided by eating one to two portions of fish per week (approximately 450mg EPA and DHA per daily adult dose).
- Choose an age-appropriate supplement – children will need less than adults.
For further information on this topic or if you wish to discuss how you can increase your own intake of omega-3 fats in your diet please arrange to speak with our dietitian in Aberdeen, Laura Court.