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.