Salmon is a source of Omega-3s.
Salmon is a source of Omega-3s. (LLOYD FOX, Baltimore Sun)

Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post. This week, Elaine Pelc weighs in on Omega-3 fatty acids.

Over the past few years there has been a lot of hype over Omega-3 fatty acids. They are said to help with a myriad of health conditions, including asthma, depression and cancers. The strongest supportive research is in the area of heart disease.


What are omega-3s?

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. This means that your body is unable to create them on its own, therefore they must be consumed from food or supplements. Omega-3s are also anti-inflammatory. The American diet is high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory, so a balanced intake of both is essential for good overall health.

Omega-3s come in 3 forms: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA.) EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish and ALA is found in the vegetarian sources of omega-3s. EPA and DHA have the most health benefits and can be utilized by the body in their current state. ALA has to be converted to EPA and DHA by the body in order to be used. There is some debate in the nutrition world between animal sources and vegetarian sources of omega-3s because there is some question as to how effective the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is in one's body, and it can vary from person to person.

Where do I find omega-3s?

DHA and EPA can be found in found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna and herring. ALA is found in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, purslane, perilla seed oil, walnuts and walnut oil.

Storing and using omega-3s

Oils can come in liquid or capsule form, so read the packaging of your specific product for proper storage.

•Flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and fish oils should be kept in a refrigerator.

•When using whole flaxseeds, remember to grind them within 24 hours of planned use, as that is the time in which the ingredients are most active.

•Flaxseed is also sold ground, in special mylar packaging to keep it active. Careful of ground flaxseeds sold in plain plastic packaging.

Recommended amounts

Remember, when taking fish oil, doses are based on EPA and DHA content, not amount of fish oil.

Recommended amounts from the American Heart Association:

•Healthy adults with no history of heart disease should eat fish at least two times per week (preferably oily fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout).


•Adults with coronary heart disease should have 1 gram daily of EPA and DHA.

•For adults with elevated triglycerides, 2-4 grams per day of EPA and DHA is recommended.

•There are no recommended doses for children. Consult a physician.

Omega-3 goals should be met primarily from food sources. A serving of fish is approximately 3.5 ounces or three-quarters of a cup of flaked fish.

Omega-3s along with other supplements can cause side effects and interact with multiple medications as well as certain health conditions. Always consult your physician before starting any supplement.

Choosing a supplement

•Choose fish oil or vegetarian sources.

•Choose a reputable brand.

•Choose a brand that tests for pesticide and mercury contaminants.