What’s the difference between ALA, EPA and DHA omega-3s?
There are three main omega-3s – EPA, DHA and ALA.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) comes from plants. ALA is a true “essential” omega-3 because we need to get this fat from the diet – our bodies can’t make it on their own. It’s found in seeds (flax, chia), nuts (walnuts) and oils (soybean, canola), to name a few. ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the rate at which that happens is very low.
EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, respectively), are omega-3s that come from marine (sea) sources. EPA and DHA are the omega-3s that have been shown to be the most protective of the heart. Scientific evidence also supports the role of EPA and DHA for brain, eye and prenatal health.
How do omega-3s differ from omega-6s?
Both omega-6s (from plant oils such as corn, soybean and sunflower oils) and omega-3s (both EPA+DHA from marine sources such as fish and algae but also ALA from nuts and seeds) have a role in supporting healthy cells. However, most people are already getting enough omega-6s in the diet. Also, since people aren't getting nearly enough omega-3s, especially EPA and DHA, there's an imbalance in the body of omega-6s to omega-3s. The key is to have a healthy balance. You can do this by adding in more omega-3-rich foods to the diet, or by taking omega-3 supplements providing EPA and DHA.
Are all omega-3s digested and absorbed the same way by my body?
There are several factors that play a role in digestion and absorption. Everybody is different and so is the ability to digest and absorb nutrients, including omega-3s.
There are small differences in absorption rates among the various forms of omega-3s. When adding an omega-3 supplement to your daily regimen, ensure that the supplement delivers adequate amounts of EPA and DHA (as shown on the Supplement Facts label).
If you are experiencing “fishy burps” from your omega-3 supplement, you may want to try a different brand – always look for a reputable brand of high-quality omega-3.
If you have questions consult your health care professional.
Is there a recommended intake for EPA and DHA omega-3s?
Although omega-3s are considered vital, there is no established Adequate Intake (AI) or Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) in the United States for EPA and DHA omega-3s. Other countries and a number of expert scientific bodies and health professionals recommend 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA per day.
Are you getting enough omega-3s? Take our quiz to find out.
How do I select a high-quality omega-3 supplement?
The key to selecting a high-quality omega-3 supplement is to read the label to identify how much EPA and DHA is included in each serving. Amounts of total omega-3s, as well as EPA and DHA, all vary considerably between products, but should be clearly identified on the label. If they are not clearly identified, continue to look for a product that labels all three of these important components.
- The Serving Size is listed here on the label. This is how much you need to ingest to obtain the amount of omega-3s, EPA and DHA listed on the label. Serving size may often be more than one capsule or softgel.
- The amounts of EPA and DHA are listed here. EPA and DHA are associated with different health benefits, so it is important that manufacturers clearly identify how much each serving contains. The amount of EPA and DHA in a supplement is generally less than the total amount of omega-3s. For example, some packaging will feature “Fish Oil 1000mg” but this describes the amount of total fish oil in the product and not the specific levels of EPA and DHA. For some health concerns, practitioners recommend patients take an omega-3 supplement that provides a specific level of EPA, DHA or both.
- This field contains the total amount of omega-3s per serving.
- This list contains all of the ingredients contained in the product, including the ingredients used to blend the oil and make the capsule. Ingredients, such as rosemary and d-alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E), are antioxidants that have been added to better preserve the fish oil and keep the product fresh tasting.
Can vegetarians and vegans get EPA/DHA omega-3s?
Yes! If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are omega-3 supplements on the market that are made from marine algae, which contain high levels of EPA and DHA. Look for omega-3s sourced from algae in the supplements aisle of your local grocery and health food stores.
Do we even need fat in our daily diet?
Absolutely. Every cell in the human body contains fat in its cell membrane and fat is required for healthy cells. The quality of fat within the cells helps to determine the structure and function of the cells and ultimately your body. Be sure to incorporate healthy fats like omega-3s and decrease your consumption of unhealthy fats, including saturated and trans fats.
Increasing consumption of healthy omega-3 fats in your diet and reducing bad fats helps to support overall health.
I have heard that some fats may be healthier for me than others. Is this true?
Yes, there are great and not-so-great fats. Let's start with the bad news first. Too high of an intake of trans fats and saturated fats has a long history and lots of research supporting a negative impact on health.
In contrast, several types of unsaturated fats are considered healthy fats. Omega-3s are an example of a healthy fat. Omega-3s in particular help your heart, brain and eyes develop and function properly, and improve pregnancy outcomes.
Heart: As part of a healthy lifestyle, omega-3s may help you maintain healthy blood pressure, support healthy triglyceride levels and manage your risk of heart disease.
Brain: The omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) makes up a large percent of the brain and helps support brain health during all stages of life.
Eyes: DHA is a major structural component in the retina of your eye and plays an important role in visual development and function throughout life.
Prenatal: In addition to benefits for the growing baby's brain and eye development, pregnant moms with higher omega-3 levels reduce their risk of having a premature birth or low birth weight baby.
What does the term “polyunsaturated” fatty acid (PUFA) mean?
“Poly” refers to unsaturated fatty acids that have more than one double bond found in the structure of the fat (between carbon atoms). Two important polyunsaturated fatty acids that help to support overall health include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Should I be concerned by the term “fatty” fish?
In a single word, no. Some fish can contain up to 10 times more fat than other types of fish or shellfish but even the fattiest of fish are still much leaner than most other animal fat sources. Keep in mind that the fat found in fish — omega-3s — is considered good fat and is important for your health. Your body cannot make omega-3s on its own; therefore, you must incorporate them into your diet in order to get the benefits.
Can I get my omega-3 or fatty acid levels tested?
Yes, you can have your omega-3 or fatty acid levels tested to see if you may have lower than recommended levels of omega-3s. Your current blood levels will help your health care practitioner determine the best consumption amount for you.
Click the links below to see omega-3 test kit options:
Should I be concerned about contaminants like mercury in fish or fish oil supplements?
Because of their natural environment, some fish may contain higher levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants than what may be found in a fish oil supplement. The benefits of fish consumption far outweigh the potential risks when the amount of fish eaten is within the recommendations established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a matter of fact, the FDA and EPA recently recommended that pregnant women and children eat more fish due to its health benefits.
Some fish, like wild salmon, have lower levels of contaminants than fish like swordfish and tilefish, so understanding what fish have low levels of contaminants is important. Learn more seafood recommendations from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
As for omega-3 dietary supplements, manufacturers purify the oil to reduce the level of environmental contaminants in the end product. Before the supplements are placed on store shelves the fish oil is tested to ensure it meets the GOED industry standard for contaminant levels.