Comparing ways to consume more omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats -- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) -- that are found in fish, nuts, seaweed and vegetables. Research has linked omega-3 consumption to heart health and mental benefits, most of which can be attributed to the fatty acids' DHA and EPA components. You can get the moderate doses that appear to reduce heart disease by eating 3.5 ounces of fatty fish two to five times per week. Higher doses used to lower triglycerides, or reduce attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder or depression, are more easily met using an omega-3 supplement.

The main types of omega-3 supplements are fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, algae or algal oil and flaxseed oil. Rich in both EPA and DHA, fish oil is the most common. Cod liver oil is also high in EPA and DHA, but when taken in large doses can provide too much of the vitamins A and D. Made from small shrimplike crustaceans, krill oil can potentially cause an allergic reaction in people with a shellfish allergy. As for vegan options, algae oil is rich in DHA while flaxseed oil contains only ALA. Some ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but it's a very small amount.

Also available is a prescription-only fish oil called Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters) that has a high concentration of EPA and DHA. Its manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, has had to prove to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through multiple studies that Lovaza is safe and effective. Over-the-counter omega-3 supplements are also regulated by the FDA, but instead of manufacturers having to prove that products are safe before they reach the market, the burden lies on the FDA to prove if they're unsafe later.

Food still remains the best way to increase your omega-3 intake. Not only are sources of omega-3s also high in vitamins and minerals, but by choosing to eat more fish and vegetables, you may get other healthful benefits.

Types of Omega-3s

Fish and Cod Liver Oil
Advantages
  • Rich in EPA and DHA
  • Most researched
  • Low in contaminants
  • Multiple products are USP-verified
Disadvantages
  • Possibility of burping, nausea and fishy taste
  • Concentrations can vary widely
  • Cod liver oil can provide too much vitamin A and D
  • Potential to cause an allergic reaction
  • Must take multiple pills
Krill Oil
Advantages
  • Rich in EPA and DHA
  • Health benefits similar to fish oil
  • Minimal contamination
Disadvantages
  • Could trigger a shellfish allergy
  • Debate over the sustainability of harvesting krill
  • Not verified by the USP
Algae Oil
Advantages
  • Rich in DHA
  • Sustainable
  • Vegan
  • Minimal contamination
  • No fishy taste
Disadvantages
  • Contains minimal EPA
  • Relatively new to the market
  • Minimal research has been conducted
  • Not verified by the USP
Flaxseed Oil
Advantages
  • Rich in ALA
  • Vegan
  • No fishy taste
Disadvantages
  • Not a source of EPA and DHA
  • Fewer health benefits than fish oil
Lovaza
Advantages
  • More oversight than supplements
  • Highly concentrated amounts of EPA and DHA
  • Multiple studies show efficacy and safety
  • Minimal contamination
Disadvantages
  • Prescription only
  • May not be covered by insurance
  • Fishy taste
Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Advantages
  • Added vitamins and minerals
  • Benefits of eating more fish are well researched
  • No side effects or drug interactions
Disadvantages
  • Impractical for obtaining large doses
  • More contaminants than fish oil
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