How Much Omega-3 Do You Need? by Dr. Joseph Mercola for Mercola
Dietary fats are essential to good health. Although it is harmful to eat too many of some, or not enough of others, without healthy fats your body will not work properly.1 Fat is used to keep your skin and hair healthy, absorb certain vitamins and insulate your body to keep you warm. Certain fats are essential since your body cannot make them.
Fat is required for brain development as well as controlling inflammation and blood clotting. The most dangerous type of dietary fat is trans fat, which is found in baked goods and processed foods.2 During processing, healthy oils may be turned into solids through a process called hydrogenation to extend their shelf life. During this process, trans fats are formed.
There are no health benefits from trans fats and it is not safe to eat any amount of them. Polyunsaturated fats are essential, which means you must eat them since your body doesn’t make them. The two main types are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The number identifies the chemical bond in the fat.
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While both are essential, most people eat them in the wrong ratio, which leads to an increase in chronic inflammation.3 Omega-6 is found in high concentrations in processed foods, corn oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is 1-to-1.4 Unfortunately, the typical Western diet has a ratio up to 1-to-16.
Maintaining a low ratio may help reduce your risk of many of the chronic diseases prevalent in Western society. The excessive intake of omega-6 fats nearly tripled in the last 100 years with the introduction of vegetable oils.5 Researchers believe they may have discovered a formula that would help 95% of people raise their omega-3 index to a healthy range from 8% to 12%.6
What Is an Omega-3 Index?
Measuring omega-3 levels in your blood provides an indication of risk for chronic disease. In this short video William Harris, Ph.D., discusses the omega-3 index and the importance it has in evaluating your disease risk.
Omega-3 is measured on your red blood cells as a reflection of the amount found in the rest of your body. Before Harris developed the test in 2004, an assay was not available. Since the life span of a red blood cell is about 120 days,7 the test measures an average of your intake and isn’t influenced by a recent meal that was high in omega-3.
The test has been used to evaluate data from several studies, including the Framingham Study and the Women’s Health Initiative.8 The index is expressed as a percent of all fatty acids in the red blood cell membrane.9 Data from studies Harris performed showed the healthy range of omega-3 is from 8% to 12%.10
An international team of scientists led by researchers from Penn State University and OmegaQuant Analytics used the omega-3 index to model how it might be affected by eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation.11 These are long-chain fatty acids found in animal-based omega-3 fats.12
Achieving Your Target Omega-3 Index
As Harris determined, maintaining your omega-3 index in a low risk range reduces your chance of getting heart disease. However, it’s been challenging for researchers and consumers to determine how much supplementation might be needed to achieve a healthy range.
The team’s objective was to study the effects of EPA and DHA supplementation on volunteers’ omega-3 index levels.13 Using a literature review, they identified data from 1,422 individuals participating in intervention trials where measurements of omega-3 index, sex, age, weight and duration of treatment were all recorded.
There were 846 individuals who were given EPA and DHA supplements, while 576 were given placebos. After analysis, the researchers found the supplement formulation, dose and baseline omega-3 index were predictors of response to the intervention.
The scientists believe the model they developed could be used by researchers to help estimate the physiological response to a dose and form of supplementation.14 As reported in NutraIngredients-USA,15 a dose of 2 grams of EPA and DHA in the triglyceride form is needed to raise omega-3 levels more than supplements in the ethyl ester form. The researchers said:16
“A dose of about 2000 mg/d of EPA + DHA is much higher than current recommended intakes to reduce CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 8 oz of fish per week, which is said to be equivalent to about 250 mg/d EPA + DHA, and the American Heart Association recommends 1-2 servings of “oily” fish per week (assumed to approximate 500 mg/d EPA + DHA) to reduce CVD risk. Using the model and assuming the TG (triglyceride) form, these EPA + DHA intakes would increase the O3I from 4% to ~6%.”
Omega-3 EPA and DHA are available in several forms, including triglyceride, ethyl ester, phospholipid and free fatty acid.17 The featured study evaluated the use of omega-3 in the triglyceride form, which is more prevalent in the food supply. In comparison, the ethyl ester form is chemically connected to ethanol during processing enabling EPA and DHA to be concentrated in supplements.
Health Benefits Associated With Achieving Target Levels
Harris18 found a significant association between the omega-3 index and the risk for coronary heart disease. Based on his results, he proposed that those with an omega-3 index below 4% were at high risk; those with an index from 4% to 8% experienced intermediate risk and those who had an index greater than 8% had a low risk for coronary heart disease.