Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Should You Take Omega-3?

a field guide to supplements

So you’re standing in the vitamin aisle and you catch sight of a large bottle of capsules, on special this week: Omega-3.

Hmm, you think...I’ve heard that’s good for you. Maybe I should get it?

Is omega-3 something you should pay attention to? Is it something you should take? Waste of money...or something that could save your life?

Good questions, these. Let’s start by breaking down what omega-3 is, and what it does for you.

To begin, omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are considered an essential fatty acid (EFA) because you’re body can’t manufacture it.

I know, I know. “Fat” and “acid” do not sound like things you would want more of. But put that aside, and listen to what omega-3 fatty acids do for you. Because there’s been a lot of research into omega-3 recently, and here are some of the ways it may benefit you:

  • reduce heart disease risk
  • improve cholesterol profile
  • reduce blood pressure
  • reduce the risk of stroke
  • help prevent ADHD in your kids
  • protect against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia
  • improve depression
  • decrease chronic inflammation
  • ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
  • ease the symptoms of lupus, another autoimmune disease
  • protect your vision
  • prevent cancer (colon cancer and breast cancer, in particular)
  • reduce anxiety and stress

Okay, so clearly, lots of benefit. Now, what's the best way to get omega-3?

How to get omega-3 through food:

The main sources of omega-3 fatty acids are: cold water fish like salmon, cod, sardines, mackerel and tuna. Vegetarian sources are walnuts and flaxseed, and eggs enriched with omega-3. The Mediterranean diet, in particular, is very high in omega-3.

What about supplements?

I always recommend increasing your food sources of omega-3. The American Heart Association advises to eat fish twice a week for a healthy heart. But should you take supplements, too? If you’re not a fish fan, then it’s probably a good idea. Also, consider supplements if you’ve got risk factors for the biggies, like heart disease or stroke.

But I also think anyone interested in keeping their hearts and brains healthy, and prevent chronic disease, should consider supplements. And...doesn’t that describe most of us?

Truth be told, I take omega-3 supplements myself. And I give them to my kids, too.

So how much should you take and what, exactly, are you looking for in a supplement? There are two critical omega-3s that the body needs: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA). You want a daily dose of DHA 600-1000 mg. Fish oil supplements are the best way to obtain a balance of DHA and EPA.

But when you go to the drug store, you see all kinds of other seemingly related choices, including omega-6, and omega-9. Do you need these, too?

Well, your body needs omega-3 and omega-6 in a balance. Specifically, you need about 2-4 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. North American diets are typically low in omega-3. But they’re way too high in omega-6, which is found in various vegetable oils and the foods cooked in them.

The trouble with too much omega-6 is that it breaks down into arachidonic acid, which is highly inflammatory. This leads to increased risk of heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, depression, and other nasties. If your diet is typical, you probably get about 20 times omega-6 to omega-3. Oops. Take home message? Don’t bother taking omega-6 in supplement form.

And omega-9? Also not something you need to take. Omega-9 is manufactured in the body from saturated fat, so you don't need to get it from food or supplements.

Looking for yummy fish recipes? Try this.

Interested in other ways you can protect your heart? Read this.

Curious about the Mediterranean diet? Check this.