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Do I need an Omega-3 Supplement, and How do I Know Which One to Choose?

So you have heard that you should be including something along the lines of Omega 3, fish oil, EPA or polyunsaturated thingybobs in your diet, but not entirely sure what you’re doing, and looking for a supplement can be overwhelming. We can help.

So, what are Omega-3s?

They are polyunsaturated fats and come in several forms such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

EPA and DHA are longer fatty acid chains, whereas ALA is a shorter chain.

These are the three main Omega-3 fatty acids which play an important role in the human body and should be included in our diets.

Where are they found?

They can be found in fish oils, but also plant oils, seeds and nuts.

EPA and DHA are commonly found in oily fish such as kippers, pilchards, trout, sprats, salmon, herring, sardines, crab (fresh) and whitebait. They can also be found in meat, eggs and dairy from grass-fed animals, but in smaller amounts.

ALA, on the other hand, is found in plant oils such as flaxseed oil, and can also be found in other plant based foods such as walnuts and soybean products.

What’s the difference between the three?

They are all long fatty acid chains with more than one double bond. This is where the ‘poly’ comes from in ‘polyunsaturated fat’, meaning more than one. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are both polyunsaturated fats, but it's important to have the right ratio of these fatty acids in the diet as currently as a population we are having too much Omega-6 and too little Omega-3!

You may have also heard of monounsaturated fats (Omega-9), and these only have one double bond ‘mono’. But let’s go back to Omega-3 before things get confusing.

ALA is the most common Omega-3 fatty acid out of the three discussed, however DHA is the most important. ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA but the efficiency is very low, and our body is less able to do this as we get older.

So, although it’s great to include good sources of ALA (so plant oils, nuts, seeds) in your diet, getting your Omega-3 from oily fish in the EPA/DHA form is much better!

What are the health benefits?

Omega-3s are important for your heart, blood vessels, lungs and the immune and hormone systems and a key structural component of your brain, the retina, sperm and many other body parts.

Furthermore, Omega-3 fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits and are linked with reducing the risk of dementia, improving fertility, and important for the development of a baby’s brain, plus so much more.

How much should we have?

The UK has no recommended daily intake of Omega-3s so how much we should be having isn’t really known. However, the current recommendation is to have 2 portions of fish a week, with one of these being oily and said to provide around 450mg of EPA and DHA. According to the BDA, we should be looking for supplements that provide us with about 450mg combined EPA and DHA per daily adult dose.

However, the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) and The EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have recommended upper limits of 3000mg and 5000mg a day, respectively. Higher intakes can cause blood thinning and bleeding amongst other serious issues, so do not exceed and consult with GP before you start taking them.

How to choose the right supplement for you?

Humans are not able to produce these essential fatty acids themselves, so it is crucial to include them in your diet by eating oily fish or making sure we top up our Omega-3 intake with a food supplement. When there are so many supplements on the shelves, it can be difficult to know what’s best for you! So here are some things to look out for.

Check label for EPA/ DHA content

Fish oil is an oil that is produced by the fish's fat and tissues that contains the Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA & EPA) that we are really looking out for, however, it also contains other elements besides Omega-3.

Generally, it contains about 30% of pure Omega-3 fatty acids, however, when it comes to fish oils that are used as food supplements, the concentration can vary from 8% to 80%.