Your supermarket is loaded with foods boasting omega-3 content: The nutrient can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, kale, fortified orange juice and bread, fish, and fish oil supplements.
That’s great, because research has found that omega-3s may improve your brain function, decrease your risk of heart disease, and help with overall inflammation. But not all sources are created equal, says Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Roussell, Ph.D.
Think of omega-3 fatty acids in two very separate categories, Roussell says: The kinds that come from fish, EPA and DHA; and the kind that comes from plants, ALA. (Here’s Why You Don’t Need to Take Fish Oil Supplements.)
The omega-3s from fish have stronger evidence backing their heart-health benefits. Research has suggested that these fatty acids may reduce the fat in your blood and decrease inflammation, which is the root of heart disease, Roussell says. They may even improve the electrochemistry of your heart, he says.
It was thought that the plant-derived omega-3s were only good for your heart because your body converted them into smaller amounts of EPA, one of the fish-derived fatty acids. By that theory, you’d need to eat a lot of chia seeds to get the same benefits as you’d get from a chunk of salmon.
But recent science suggests that we might not have given ALA enough credit. In a review, Penn State researchers concluded that ALA may have benefits beyond being converted into EPA. It may help prevent heart disease on its own by reducing inflammation. Still, more research needs to be done to find out if omega-3s from plants are as good for you as those from fish—and how much you would need to consume to reap the rewards, Roussell says.
The takeaway: Don’t swap fish for flax just yet.
Roussell is standing by his general recommendation to aim for a total of 1,000 milligrams of fish-derived omega-3s daily. “Most people don’t eat fatty fish with enough consistent frequency,” he says. It’s also a good idea to shoot for 2 to 3 grams of ALA daily in the form of foods like flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and chia seeds, he says.
Even better: You can find out your omega-3 blood levels and adjust your diet from there, Roussell says.
By Ali Eaves