By Mary Blythe Puryear, YMCA Wellness Staff

You may have noticed the buzz lately around omega-3 fatty acids. You may also be familiar with fish oil supplements, omega-3 blend supplements, EPA and DHA, etc. But, why are they so important?

Here’s the deal: The body can make most of the fats it needs on its own, but it cannot make omega-3s. That’s why they are called “essential,” meaning we must get them from food sources.

What do omega-3s do?

Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for normal body function and optimal health. Inuit Eskimos, who eat a lot of salmon, were found in a study to have high HDL (the good) cholesterol and low LDL (the bad) cholesterol.

The strongest research has been around omega-3’s effect on heart disease. Studies have shown that omega-3s can help the heart beat at a steady rhythm, preventing arrhythmias. They can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation. These benefits can prevent or delay fats and other substances building up in the blood vessels, causing blockages.

What are the omega-3 fatty acids?

They are a family of polyunsaturated fats. There are three kinds of omega-3s: ALA, DHA and EPA.

ALA is mainly found in plant sources. DHA and EPA are found together, mostly in fish and seafood. DHA and EPA are compounds that help our central nervous systems develop normally through infancy and childhood (you may have seen them advertised as being added to infant formulas).

It is also important to note that DHA and EPA are the more “powerful” omega 3s. ALA does not have the same effects that DHA/EPA do, especially in regards to heart health.

When buying foods that advertise “Rich in Heart Healthy Omega-3s,” be sure to look at the source. Some of these products only contain a small amount of ALA, and no DHA or EPA. For example, Quaker® Fiber & Omega‑3 Dark Chocolate Chunk Granola Bars only have a small amount of soybean oil. 

What foods can I eat to get the benefits?

Significant sources of ALA

  • Canola oil
  • Walnuts/walnut oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Flaxseed oil

Significant sources of DHA/EPA

  • Dark-colored fish like salmon are one of the best sources
  • Other fatty fish like trout, mackerel, sardines
  • Shellfish
  • Fish oil
  • DHA omega-3 eggs
Do I need to take supplements?

Ideally, we should be getting the omega-3 fatty acids our body needs from real food. That way we can reap the other nutritional benefits that whole foods have to offer: protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Taking supplements may be beneficial if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis, or if you are allergic to fish or shellfish. Some preliminary studies are also showing that omega-3 supplements can help symptoms of mood disorders.

How much do I need in my diet?

The average individual should consume 250-500mg DHA/EPA and 2g ALA daily. You should consult your physician to determine what’s best for your personal health.

Can I have a recipe?

Glad you asked! Here’s our pick for a fish dish.

Maple Grilled Salmon from Cooking Light


  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, skinned
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper


  1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag; add fish. Seal and marinate in refrigerator 3 hours.
  2. Preheat grill or grill pan to medium-high heat.
  3. Remove fish from bag, reserving the marinade. Pour marinade into a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Cook until reduced to 2 tablespoons (about 5 minutes).
  4. Place fish on grill rack or pan coated with cooking spray; grill 4 minutes on each side or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork or until desired degree of doneness, basting occasionally with marinade. Remove fish from grill; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  5. Serve with a simple spinach salad loaded with heart-healthy berries.

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