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How Much Omega-3 Do I Need?

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By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN

One of the most common questions I get is ‘how much omega-3 do I need’? My reply is always the same, ‘it depends on who is asking!’. Why? Because there are a few factors to consider in answering this question.

On one hand, we know omega-3s are essential nutrients that everybody needs and our bodies can’t produce. Consuming any is better than none. On the other hand, omega-3s are the most studied nutrient on the planet so we can do much better than that.

Let’s consider 3 things:

1. The form. Omega-3s include the “shorter chain” forms found in plant foods (e.g., ALA (alpha linolenic acid) and SDA (stearidonic acid)) and the “longer chain” forms that naturally occur in fish and fish oil (e.g., EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)). The longer chain forms, EPA and DHA are the most functional forms. What do I mean by that? EPA and DHA are the omega-3 fatty acids that reside in our cells and tissues, the forms that work to manage inflammation, build brain and eye tissue, help our hearts beat, our immune systems function, and our blood flowing from head to toe. Tip: EPA and DHA occur in fish oil, so always read the label for EPA and DHA, not the amount of fish oil.

2. Your diet. We consume nutrients from the foods we eat every day. As a nutritionist, I fully support this practice. As a nutrition scientist who studies omega-3s, I know this isn’t happening. While it’s widely recommended that adults and children consume two or more servings of fatty fish per week just to meet our minimum need, most Americans don’t come close. Not by a long shot. Heck, the World Health Organization recommends that everyone consume at least 250 mg EPA and DHA per day and unless you live in Greenland, this isn’t happening. And if you haven’t eaten fish for years or forever, you have some catching up to do.

3. Your health goals. From the more than 4,000 human trials on omega-3s, we can confidently say that for general heart health and wellness, everyone needs at least 500 mg EPA and DHA per day (250 mg is the bare minimum). I consider this level I, just covering the basics.
Level II is consuming at least 1,000 mg EPA and DHA per day; this is the amount recommended for people who know, based on their family history, that their hearts and minds could use nutritional support, for children who could use help at school and teens who refuse to eat fish. Level II is practicing basic prevention.

Level III is 2,000 mg EPA and DHA or more per day; this is the amount we need to reach optimal nutrition status, to carry us well over our lifetime. Research shows that 2,000 mg EPA and DHA per day keeps our hearts and circulation strong, our brains more functional, our moods up, and our joints more flexible. 2,000 mg EPA and DHA per day is recommended for endurance athletes. If 2,000 mg EPA and DHA sounds like a lot, it’s not; it’s a serving of sardines or salmon. If you were an Eskimo where heart disease was virtually absent, this would just be lunch! 2,000 mg EPA and DHA per day is also a great place for adults to start, if you didn’t grow up eating fish. I can also tell you a secret: nutrition scientist who work in omega-3 research take this much and more. There really isn’t a reason not to. More on that later.

And finally, people who need targeted nutritional support, such as performance athletes, people with rheumatoid arthritis or serious mental health conditions, or those looking to specifically lower their triglycerides, then between 2,000 to 4,000 mg EPA and DHA, and more in some cases, are in order. This is level IV. Always work with your healthcare professional for your targeted health needs.

We can meet basic nutritional needs, practice general prevention, aim for optimal nutritional status, make-up for what you’ve missed by not eating fish, or target a specific health need with omega-3s. Isn’t that great! So, as you can see, how much EPA and DHA omega-3 you need is really determined by who’s asking.

Disclaimer: This information is offered for educational purposes only. It is the opinion and scientific interpretation of the author. It is not intended as medical advice of any kind. The educational information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure any disease nor has this been reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Scientific References are available upon request.

Gretchen Vannice is the Director of Nutrition Education and Research for Wiley Companies.  She is a globally recognized expert, author, and speaker in omega-3 research and education.

The Avoidable Price We Are Paying

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By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN

In the United States, adults eat about 100 mg of EPA and DHA omega-3 per day, children get about half that. The World Health Organization recommends 250 mg EPA and DHA per day to meet our basic, essential needs. Said another way, 250 mg EPA and DHA is considered enough to prevent nutrient deficiency.

Fish, especially oily fish, is an excellent source of EPA and DHA omega-3s. We know that Americans don’t eat much fish these days, a fact confirmed by nutrition research and directly from measuring people’s blood levels of omega-3. FYI, your omega-3 blood levels can be measured with an at-home test; it’s called the Omega-3 Index.

What does this matter? Let’s consider this.

A while ago, a bunch of smart people (public health and nutrition scientists and statisticians at Harvard Medical School, University of Washington, and University of Toronto) calculated the impact of diet and lifestyle factors (things we can affect) on risk of death. From this, we learned that in 2005 we could have potentially prevented up to 96,000 deaths from heart disease if people had consumed just 250 mg EPA and DHA per day. That’s what you’d get from eating salmon once or twice a week or taking a 1,000 mg fish oil capsule of EPA and DHA twice a week. That’s all it would take.

For context, only high salt intake fared worse. As you might expect, smoking, being overweight and inactive led the pack on influential lifestyle factors. Low intake of omega-3 intake fared worse than trans fats and low fruit and vegetable intake. Yet what we hear is advice to eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid trans fats. Where’s the fish!

Fast forward to 2019. An expert group from Tufts School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Brigham and Women’s College of Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health estimated that the cost of care for just two major health conditions (heart disease and type 2 diabetes) associated with consuming less than 250 mg EPA and DHA a day (measured by seafood consumption) was $12.74 Billion a year. The estimated price we are paying in the US from not consuming just 250 mg EPA and DHA per day is nearly $13 Billion a year.

Here’s the insanity: If Americans consumed about 2,000 mg EPA and DHA from fish oil per day, or ate fatty fish a few times a week, they could attain an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher and slash these costs while attaining optimal health. True story. The research is in.

Disclaimer: This information is offered for educational purposes only. It is the opinion and scientific interpretation of the author. It is not intended as medical advice of any kind. The educational information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure any disease nor has this been reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Scientific References are available upon request.

Gretchen Vannice is the Director of Nutrition Education and Research for Wiley Companies.  She is a globally recognized expert, author, and speaker in omega-3 research and education.

Why So Many Forms of Omega-3s?

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By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN

I’m surprised this question doesn’t come up more often: why so many forms of Omega-3s? There is one form of calcium (calcium), one form of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), but several forms of omega-3s. What’s more, the various forms of omega-3s have more differences than commonalities. Let me explain.

The four forms of omega-3s we hear about the most are ALA, SDA, EPA, and DHA. They are fatty acids, that is, fat-based nutrients with unique chemistry. Hint: it’s the unique chemistry that make them unique to human health.

Omega-3s share chemistry in common and beyond that, they differ. Where they are found, the functions they perform, and the amount recommended to consume all differ.

For example, ALA and SDA are found in plant-based foods, they work differently from EPA and DHA; the United States has a recommendation for an Adequate Intake for ALA, but not an optimal amount and not a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).

On the other hand, EPA and DHA naturally occur only in foods from the sea, that is fish, seafood, and fish oils. In fact, the colder and deeper the water, the more EPA and DHA in the fish and seafood. EPA and DHA have identified roles in human health and are required for normal growth and development. We, the people, can produce some EPA when we eat ALA and SDA, but negligible DHA. EPA is the primary molecule that works in tandem to balance other essential fats and is particularly valuable in reducing inflammation. DHA is conditionally essential in infant development because babies require DHA for normal development. And DHA is part of our cell structures; it’s found throughout our body but concentrated in human brains, eyes, and sperm. Now, whether we have enough EPA and DHA to do their assigned jobs completely depends on our diet and supplements.

We cannot make omega-3s fats in our bodies, but we need them, and that is why we need to eat them. We get far too little omega-3s; most Americans fall short of meeting minimum intake needs and don’t come close to reaping the documented benefits. While on the topic, we can’t make omega-6 fats either, but we get plenty in our diet.

The chemistry shared by omega-3 fats is this: the first double bond is located on the 3rd carbon from the omega end of the fatty acid chain. Not simple! No chemistry happens on the omega end, so this naming system was plausible; an omega-3 will always be an omega-3. While the sources and functions of the various forms differ, they have this chemistry in common. It was originally thought that humans could produce enough EPA and DHA from ALA, but human research has documented that we can’t. We don’t. And our health status and diet further complicate this simple fact.

Before I go, I want to give tribute to the scientist who first named omega-3s. Dr. Ralph Holman, a native Minnesotan, was a lipid chemist and pioneer in essential fatty acid research and metabolism at the University of Minnesota. When he identified the chemistry of omega-3s, he applied his Christian faith to name them, based on the bible passage “I am the Alpha and the Omega”. The first double bond on the 3rd carbon from the omega end. These seemingly oddly-named nutrients are, indeed, essential for human health.

Disclaimer: This information is offered for educational purposes only. It is the opinion and scientific interpretation of the author. It is not intended as medical advice of any kind. The educational information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, or cure any disease nor has this been reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Scientific References are available upon request.

Gretchen Vannice is the Director of Nutrition Education and Research for Wiley Companies.  She is a globally recognized expert, author, and speaker in omega-3 research and education.