Essential Benefits of Omega-3s for Health & Wellbeing: A Comprehensive Guide

Written by: Christine VanDoren, nutritionist

Fact checked by: Kelsey Butler, RDN

close up of omega-3 capsules

Omega-3 fatty acids have gained significant attention recently due to their numerous supportive health benefits. These essential nutrients, primarily found in fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and certain plant oils, are renowned for their positive impact on overall health and well-being. 

Omega-3 fatty acids aid general health in a variety of ways, and this is why it is important to include them in our diet daily. From the important role they play in brain development to the positive effects they have on mental and cardiovascular health, omega-3s are nutrients the body cannot do without.

So what are omega-3 fatty acids, what are the best food sources, and what are all the positive health benefits that these nutrients supply? For all this information and more, read this comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about omega-3s. 

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats that are essential for human health. They are referred to as "essential" because the human body cannot produce them on its own, and they must, therefore, be obtained through diet or supplementation. 

These fatty acids also play a crucial role in various bodily processes and have been extensively studied for their potential health benefits.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids and they are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and fish oil supplements. They are known to have numerous positive health benefits, including supporting cardiovascular health. 

Studies have linked EPA and DHA to healthy blood pressure and triglyceride levels and promote healthy heart rhythms. Additionally, they may also play a role in brain development and function, potentially reducing the risk of age-related cognitive decline.

ALA, on the other hand, is found in plant sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. While not as potent as EPA and DHA, ALA can still be converted into small amounts of these fatty acids in the body. ALA is known for its antioxidant properties, which can again support overall health. 

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

When it comes to determining the best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, several factors, such as the amount, type, and bioavailability of these fats, must be considered.

One of the most abundant and well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are highly bioavailable and readily absorbed by the body. Consuming fatty fish at least twice a week can provide a significant amount of omega-3s.

For those who do not consume fish or follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids are available. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are excellent options. 

These seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid that can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, although the conversion rate is relatively low. Including ground flaxseeds or chia seeds in smoothies, baked goods, or as a topping for salads can help increase omega-3 intake.

Walnuts are another valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids. Not only are they a convenient snack, but they also provide a well-balanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Walnuts also contain ALA and have been associated with supporting heart health. 

Certain other seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, also offer a modest amount of omega-3 fatty acids. While these seeds contain predominantly omega-6 fatty acids, they also contribute to the overall omega-3 to omega-6 ratio balance in the diet. These seeds can be consumed as a snack or added to salads for added nutritional benefits.

Another practical way of getting omega-3 fatty acids is through supplements. These can be especially useful for those individuals who may not like foods that contain omega-3s or for those who are too busy to always eat healthily daily.

Omega-3 supplements have gained immense popularity recently due to their possible health benefits. However, first and foremost, it is crucial to note the source of omega-3 in the supplement itself.

The best omega-3 supplements often derive their omega-3 fatty acids from high-quality fish oil, usually sourced from cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel. These fish are known to be rich in omega-3 and contain less harmful contaminants like mercury compared to other fish species. 

Another important factor to consider is the concentration of omega-3 in the supplement. The best supplements will clearly state the amount of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the two most beneficial and bioavailable forms of omega-3. 

To reap maximum benefits, opt for supplements with higher concentrations, usually measured in milligrams per serving. For example, the AHA recommends a concentration of 2-4 grams per supplement, which is in the upper range. While some supplements may claim to have high total fish oil content, it is important to read the fine print and confirm the actual concentration of EPA and DHA.

Considering the bioavailability of omega-3 is also crucial. Bioavailability refers to the body's ability to absorb and utilize the nutrients effectively. Look for supplements that utilize triglyceride form omega-3, as the body more easily absorbs it compared to ethyl ester form. 

Supplements that use phospholipid-bound omega-3 can also enhance absorption. By opting for highly bioavailable supplements, you can ensure that your body can effectively utilize the omega-3 fatty acids.

Furthermore, pay attention to the overall quality and purity of the supplement. Reputable brands often have their products tested by third-party laboratories to ensure quality and purity. 

The best supplements should be free from artificial additives, preservatives, or unnecessary fillers. It is also important to ensure that the supplements are fresh and have not expired. Check the manufacturing and expiration dates on the product labels to ensure you are buying a high-quality and potent supplement.

Omega-3s and Heart Health

Omega-3s can play a role in maintaining healthy triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood, and elevated levels can cause problems. Omega-3s have been shown to help keep your triglyceride levels within a healthy range, thereby protecting your heart.

Additionally, omega-3s have a positive impact on blood pressure. Having a healthy blood pressure is essential for your heart, as it keeps additional strain off your heart and blood vessels.

By modulating the body's immune response and inhibiting the production of certain molecules, omega-3s can help you stay healthy.

Omega-3s and Brain Health

Omega-3s have also been found to have a positive impact on behavior and improve overall behavioral outcomes.

In adults, omega-3s have been linked to improved cognitive function and reduced risk of age-related brain decline. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential for optimal brain function. These fats may help maintain the structure and integrity of brain cells and promote healthy communication between neurons.

Omega-3s and Mental Health

Studies have indicated that omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can bolster mental health.

These fatty acids play crucial roles in the development and functioning of the central nervous system, and adequate levels are crucial for overall well-being.

By incorporating omega-3s into your routine, individuals may experience antioxidant benefits, improved neurotransmitter communication, and increased brain cell growth, thereby improving mental health. Omega-3s can have a positive impact on behavioral health and increase attention as well.

Omega-3s and Pregnancy

Omega-3 essential fatty acids play a crucial role in the growth and development of the fetus, supporting brain and eye development and ensuring healthy pregnancy outcomes. 

Studies have indicated that omega-3s, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are associated with improved cognitive development. 

Moreover, breastfeeding women who consume foods rich in omega-3s can pass on these important nutrients to their infants through breast milk, supporting their growth, immune function, and neurodevelopment.

During pregnancy, omega-3 fatty acids contribute significantly to fetal development. DHA, in particular, is an essential building block for the brain and eyes, and its availability during pregnancy is critical for proper development. 

Breastfeeding is widely recognized as the best way to provide optimal nutrition for an infant, and omega-3s are an essential component of breast milk. When breastfeeding women consume foods rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish or omega-3 supplements, these nutrients are transferred to the baby through breast milk, promoting proper growth and development. This is because omega-3s are essential for the development of a baby's brain and nervous system. 

Common Misconceptions and Concerns

One common misconception concerns the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Many people tend to believe that omega-6 fatty acids are harmful and should be avoided, while omega-3 fatty acids are seen as beneficial. 

However, it's important to understand that both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our overall health. While it's true that excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids, usually found in processed and fried foods, can lead to certain health issues, the key lies in maintaining a proper balance between these two types of fatty acids. 

This can be achieved by incorporating omega-3-rich foods such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, and chia seeds while moderating the consumption of omega-6-rich foods.

Supplements that contain fish oil from salmon, tuna, and mackerel are best as these fish contain the fewest environmental pollutants. Furthermore, molecularly distilled oils go through a process that removes any potential toxins that are often a concern to consumers due to water pollution. This process removes impurities, ensuring a safe and pure product.

How to Include Omega-3s in Your Diet

Consuming fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, or mackerel, at least twice a week is the easiest way to add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. 

Adding flaxseeds or chia seeds to your meals, whether in cereals, salads, or other dishes, can also provide a plant-based source of omega-3s. Additionally, incorporating walnuts or hemp seeds into daily food intake can contribute to meeting your omega-3 needs. 

For those who are vegetarian or vegan, algae-based supplements can be an excellent option to ensure an adequate intake of omega-3s. Fish oil supplements are also an option for anyone worried about their omega-3 daily intake levels.

The recommended daily intake of omega-3s can vary depending on individual factors such as age, gender, and overall health status. However, for the average adult, experts suggest a daily intake of at least 250 to 500 milligrams of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two primary types of omega-3s found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.


Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats needed in the diet because the human body cannot manufacture them. The best sources of omega-3s are fatty fish like mackerel and fish oil supplementation.

However, some vegetarian sources are also effective ways of obtaining omega-3s in the diet. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts are all adequate non-fish sources of these beneficial fats.

Omega-3s are important to human health because they have a positive effect on heart health and blood fats, and they can help to maintain healthy blood pressure readings. They can also help to promote overall cardiovascular health and healthy blood triglyceride levels. 

Omega-3s can also boost cognitive development and mental health and maintain mental well-being, especially in aging adults who are at risk of cognitive decline.

Their antioxidant properties also help to fight oxidative stress and promote normal immune responses.

Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to infant development both during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. They can also support the health of the mother during the pregnancy itself.

For optimum health benefits, a balanced diet should be consumed, but omega-3-rich foods such as oily fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds should be part of a balanced diet to help balance your intake of omega-3s and omega-6s. 

The modern diet contains far too many foods containing omega-6 fats. These include processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, and fast food, which, although convenient, offer little in the way of nutrients needed by the body to stay healthy. 

An easy way of getting the balance right is by cutting down on so-called junk food and increasing your daily intake of the omega-3-rich foods mentioned, such as fish and walnuts. Even omega-3 supplements can be a great help in getting the balance right and boosting health.


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