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omega 3 fatty acids

What can high-omega-3 foods do for you?

  • Reduce inflammation throughout your body
  • Keep your blood from clotting excessively
  • Maintain the fluidity of your cell membranes

What events indicate a need for more high-omega-3 foods?

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Joint pain

Salmon, flax seeds and walnuts are excellent food sources of omega 3 fatty acids.



What are omega 3 fatty acids?

You’ve probably been hearing about omega 3 fatty acids in recent years. The reason? A growing body of scientific research indicates that these healthy fats help prevent a wide range of medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Unlike the saturated fats found in butter and lard, omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. In chemistry class, the terms “saturated” and “polyunsaturated” refer to the number of hydrogen atoms that are attached to the carbon chain of the fatty acid. In the kitchen, these terms take on a far more practical meaning.

Polyunsaturated fats, unlike saturated fats, are liquid at room temperature and remain liquid when refrigerated or frozen. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, are liquid at room temperature, but harden when refrigerated. When eaten in appropriate amounts, each type of fat can contribute to health. However, the importance of omega 3 fatty acids in health promotion and disease prevention cannot be overstated.

The three most nutritionally important omega 3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Alpha-linolenic acid is one of two fatty acids traditionally classified as "essential." The other fatty acid traditionally viewed as essential is an omega 6 fat called linoleic acid. These fatty acids have traditionally been classified as “essential” because the body is unable to manufacture them on its own and because they play a fundamental role in several physiological functions. As a result, we must be sure our diet contains sufficient amounts of both alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid.

Dietary sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, soybeans and some dark green leafy vegetables. Linoleic acid is found in high concentrations in corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil. Most people consume a much higher amount of linoleic acid than alpha-linolenic acid, which has important health consequences. For more information on the proper ratio of these fatty acids in the diet, see our FAQ entitled, A New Way of Looking at Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates

The body converts alpha-linolenic acid into two important omega 3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). These fats can also be derived directly from certain foods, most notably cold-water fish including salmon, tuna, halibut, and herring. In addition, certain types of algae contain DHA. EPA is believed to play a role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, while DHA is the necessary for proper brain and nerve development.

How it Functions

What are the functions of omega 3 fatty acids?

Every cell in our body is surrounded by a cell membrane composed mainly of fatty acids. The cell membrane allows the proper amounts of necessary nutrients to enter the cell, and ensures that waste products are quickly removed from the cell.

Promoting Healthy Cell Membranes

To perform these functions optimally, however, the cell membrane must maintain its integrity and fluidity. Cells without a healthy membrane lose their ability to hold water and vital nutrients. They also lose their ability to communicate with other cells. Researchers believe that loss of cell to cell communication is one of the physiological events that leads to growth of cancerous tumors.

Because cell membranes are made up of fat, the integrity and fluidity of our cell membranes is determined in large part by the type of fat we eat. Remember that saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while omega 3 fats are liquid at room temperature. Researchers believe that diets containing large amounts of saturated or hydrogenated fats produce cell membranes that are hard and lack fluidity. On the other hand, diets rich in omega 3 fats produce cell membranes with a high degree of fluidity.

In addition, recent in vitro (test tube) evidence suggests when omega 3 fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes they may help to protect against cancer, notably of the breast. They are suggested to promote breast cancer cell apoptosis via several mechanisms including: inhibiting a pro-inflammatory enzyme called cyclooxygenase 2 (COX 2), which promotes breast cancer; activating a type of receptor in cell membranes called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR)-ă, which can shut down proliferative activity in a variety of cells including breast cells; and, increasing the expression of BRCA1 and BRCA2, tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair damage to DNA, thus helping to prevent cancer development.

Prostaglandin Production

Omega 3 fats also play an important role in the production of powerful hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help regulate many important physiological functions including blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, the inflammatory and allergic responses, the functions of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, and the production of other hormones.

In essence, all prostaglandins perform essential physiological functions. However, depending on the type of fat in the diet, certain types of prostaglandins may be produced in large quantities, while others may not be produced at all. This can set up an imbalance throughout the body that can lead to disease.

For example, EPA and DHA serve as direct precursors for series 3 prostaglandins, which have been called “good” or “beneficial” because they reduce platelet aggregation, reduce inflammation and improve blood flow. The role of EPA and DHA in the prevention of cardiovascular disease can be explained in large part by the ability of these fats to increase the production of favorable prostaglandins.

The omega 6 fats serve as precursors for series 1 and series 2 prostaglandins. Like the series 3 prostaglandins produced from omega 3 fats, series 1 prostaglandins are believed to be beneficial. On the other hand, series 2 prostaglandins are usually considered to be "bad" or "unhealthy," since these prostaglandins promote an inflammatory response and increase platelet aggregation. As a result, it is important to ensure proper balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats in the diet.

Deficiency Symptoms

What are deficiency symptoms for omega 3 fatty acids?

Recent statistics indicate that nearly 99% of people in the United States do not eat enough omega 3 fatty acids. However, the symptoms of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency are very vague, and can often be attributed to some other health conditions or nutrient deficiencies.

Consequently, few people (or their physicians, for that matter) realize that they are not consuming enough omega 3 fatty acids. The symptoms of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, dry and/or itchy skin, brittle hair and nails, constipation, frequent colds, depression, poor concentration, lack of physical endurance, and/or joint pain.

Toxicity Symptoms

What are toxicity symptoms for omega 3 fatty acids?

Excessive consumption of omega 3 fatty acids is not known to cause any health problems.

Impact of Cooking, Storage and Processing

How do cooking, storage, or processing affect omega 3 fatty acids?

Polyunsaturated oils, including the omega 3 fats, are extremely susceptible to damage from heat, light, and oxygen. When exposed to these elements for too long, the fatty acids in the oil become oxidized, a scientific term that simply means that the oil becomes rancid.

Rancidity not only alters the flavor and smell of the oil, but it also diminishes the nutritional value. More importantly, the oxidation of fatty acids produces free radicals, which are believed to play a role in the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Under most circumstances, the problem of rancidity only arises when the oils are removed from their natural food package. For example, the hard shell of the flaxseed protects the oil inside the seed from heat, light, and oxygen. Flaxseeds also contain antioxidant compounds, such as vitamin E, that provide additional protection against oxidation. But, when the seed is pressed to isolate the oil, the oil becomes vulnerable to the elements.

As a result, oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids should be stored in dark glass, tightly closed containers in the refrigerator or freezer. In addition, these oils should never be heated on the stove. So, instead of sautéing your vegetables in flaxseed or walnut oil, make a salad dressing using these oils.

Factors that Affect Function

What factors might contribute to a deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids?

The conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA involves a series of chemical reactions. One of the first reactions in this series is catalyzed by the enzyme delta-6 desaturase. Further down the line is a reaction that is catalyzed by the enzyme delta-5 desaturase. Unfortunately, it is now well-known that these enzymes do not function optimally in many people, and, consequently, only a small amount of the alpha-linolenic acid consumed in the diet is converted to EPA, DHA, and ultimately to the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

To increase the activity of your desaturase enzymes, be sure that your diet includes a sufficient amount of vitamin B6, vitamin B3, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. In addition, limit your intake of saturated fat and partially hydrogenated fat, as these fats are known to decrease the activity of delta-6 desaturase. Also, to be on the safe side, consider including a direct source of EPA and DHA if your diet, such as wild-caught salmon, halibut, or tuna.

Drug-Nutrient Interactions

What medications affect omega 3 fatty acids?

Fish oil supplements containing high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce high blood pressure in people taking cyclosporine, an immunosuppressive drug used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs.

In addition, a high dietary intake of omega 3 fats, especially from fish, may decrease blood pressure and thin the blood. People taking prescription blood pressure medications and/or anticoagulants should consult with their physician before taking fish oil supplements.

Nutrient Interactions

How do other nutrients interact with omega 3 fatty acids?

Vitamin E, the primary fat-soluble antioxidant, protects omega 3 fats from oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process that produces free radicals.

Health Conditions

What health conditions require special emphasis on omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega 3 fatty acids may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Asthma
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Eczema
  • High blood pressure
  • Huntington's disease
  • Lupus
  • Migraine headaches
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Obesity
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Form in Dietary Supplements

What forms of omega 3 fatty acids are found in dietary supplements?

In supplemental form, omega 3 fatty acids are available as softgels (like a vitamin E capsule) or as bottled liquids. Flaxseed oil, a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid, and cod liver oil, a rich source of EPA and DHA, are among the most popular omega 3 supplements.

When purchasing an omega 3 fatty acid supplement, remember that these oils are highly sensitive to damage from heat, light and oxygen. Choose a certified organic product that has been refrigerated and is packaged in a dark brown or green glass jar and be sure to store the product in your refrigerator or freezer.

It is also advisable to choose a supplement that contains vitamin E. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, which is added to the oil to prevent the fatty acids from becoming oxidized (or rancid).

Food Sources

Introduction to Nutrient Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the foods which are either excellent, very good or good sources of this nutrient. Next to each food name you will find the following information: the serving size of the food; the number of calories in one serving; DV% (percent daily value) of the nutrient contained in one serving; the nutrient density rating; and the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Not all of our Daily Value standards are obtained from the FDA. In most instances, we used FDA Daily Values when available because they are widely recognized and apply to both men and women. However, when unavailable, we've used other science-based research to establish nutritional standards. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read more about our Nutrient Rating System.


Foods Ranked as quality sources of:
omega 3 fatty acids
Food Serving
Cals Amount
Foods Rating
Seeds, Flax 0.25 cup 190.6 7.04 281.6 26.6 excellent
Cloves, Ground 2 tsp 14.2 0.20 8.0 10.1 very good
Nuts, Walnuts 0.25 cup 163.5 2.27 90.8 10.0 excellent
Oregano, Ground 2 tsp 9.2 0.12 4.8 9.4 good
Chinook Salmon Fillet-Baked/Broiled 4 oz-wt 261.9 2.09 83.6 5.7 excellent
Cauliflower (boiled, drained) 1 cup 28.5 0.21 8.4 5.3 very good
Scallops, Baked, Broiled 4 oz-wt 151.7 1.10 44.0 5.2 very good
Peppermint Leaves, Fresh 1 oz-wt 19.9 0.12 4.8 4.4 good
Seeds, Mustard 2 tsp 35.0 0.20 8.0 4.1 very good
Cabbage (shredded, boiled) 1 cup 33.0 0.17 6.8 3.7 very good
Lettuce, Romaine 2 cup 15.7 0.08 3.2 3.7 good
Broccoli (pieces, steamed) 1 cup 43.7 0.20 8.0 3.3 good
Brussels Sprouts, Boiled 1 cup 60.8 0.26 10.4 3.1 good
Squash, Winter, All Varieties 1 cup 80.0 0.34 13.6 3.1 good
Tofu, Raw 4 oz-wt 86.2 0.36 14.4 3.0 good
Squash, Summer, All Varieties 1 cup 36.0 0.15 6.0 3.0 good
Halibut, Baked/Broiled 4 oz-wt 158.8 0.62 24.8 2.8 good
Collard Greens, Boiled, Drained 1 cup 49.4 0.18 7.2 2.6 good
Spinach (boiled, with salt) 1 cup 41.4 0.15 6.0 2.6 good
Kale, Fresh, Boiled 1 cup 36.4 0.13 5.2 2.6 good
Soybeans, Cooked 1 cup 297.6 1.03 41.2 2.5 good
Shrimp, MixedSpecies, Steamed, Boiled 4 oz-wt 112.3 0.37 14.8 2.4 good
Greens, Turnip, Cooked 1 cup 28.8 0.09 3.6 2.3 good
Cod, Pacific, Fillet, Baked, Broiled 4 oz-wt 119.1 0.32 12.8 1.9 good
Strawberries, Fresh 1 cup 43.2 0.11 4.4 1.8 good
Green Snap/String Beans, Boiled 1 cup 43.8 0.11 4.4 1.8 good
Snapper, Baked 4 oz-wt 145.2 0.36 14.4 1.8 good
Tuna, Yellowfin, Baked/Broiled 4 oz-wt 157.6 0.33 13.2 1.5 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

Public Health Recommendations

What are current public health recommendations for omega 3 fatty acids?

To date, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has not yet issued any Dietary Reference Intakes for omega 3 fats. Recently, however, the National Institutes of Health recommended that people consume at least 2% of their total daily calories as omega 3 fats.

To meet this recommendation, a person consuming 2000 calories per day should eat at least 4 grams of omega 3 fats.

This goal can be easily met by adding just two foods to your diet: flaxseeds and wild-caught salmon. Two tablespoons of flaxseeds contain 3.5 grams of omega 3 fats, while a 4 ounce piece of salmon contains 1.5 grams of omega 3 fats.


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  • Fickova M, Hubert P, Cremel G, Leray C. Dietary (n-3) and (n-6) polyunsaturated fatty acids rapidly modify fatty acid composition and insulin effects in rat adipocytes. J Nutr 1998 Mar;128(3):512-9.
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  • Severus WE, Littman AB, Stoll AL. Omega-3 fatty acids, homocysteine, and the increased risk of cardiovascular mortality in major depressive disorder. Harv Rev Psychiatry 2001 Nov-2001 Dec 31;9(6):280-93.
  • Stoll BA. n-3 fatty acids and lipid peroxidation in breast cancer inhibition. Br J Nutr 2002 March;87(3):193-8.
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  • Watkins BA, Li Y, Seifert MF. Nutraceutical fatty acids as biochemical and molecular modulators of skeletal biology. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;20(5):410S-420S.

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