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Photograph of salmon and a small bowl of oil to signify omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 nutrient guide

Omega 3 is an 'essential' nutrient that makes regular headlines. Considering its long list of proposed health benefits, we can understand why.

What is 'essential' about omega 3?

Vitamins and certain minerals are termed as essential as they cannot be synthesised – or 'created' – by the body or are not produced in sufficient amounts to meet our needs. In other words, to maintain adequate levels, an essential nutrient needs to enter your body through diet. Vitamin D is a prime example of this as, although you can make a certain amount in your skin on exposure to sunlight, it's difficult to obtain enough during the cold months of the year.

According to Dr Sarah Brewer, 'Omega-3 fatty acids are classed as essential for health as we cannot make the shortest-chain omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), so this must come from our diet. We can make the longer-chain omega-3s, such as EPA and DHA, if we obtain good amounts of ALA from our diet, but these conversions are inefficient. This means that EPA and DHA are often in short supply and are frequently also referred to as essential.'

Where do omega-3 fatty acids come from?

Contrary to what you might think, omega-3 fatty acids don't just come from fish. Although good dietary sources of omega-3 include oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, pilchards and fresh (not tinned) tuna, they are also obtained from nuts, seeds and fortified foods. Omega-3s are also found in grass-fed wild game meats such as venison and buffalo.

When it comes to supplements, there are many sources of omega-3s: fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, algae oil (vegetarian omega-3) and flaxseed oil.

The NHS recommends that a balanced diet should include two portions of fish per week, one of which is oily. The problem is that Brits rarely manage this. A supplement is a good way to prevent a shortfall in your diet of omega-3 fatty acids.

Why are omega 3 fatty acids so important?

Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan Medical Director, says, 'Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory action that is beneficial for joints and have protective effects on the heart, blood pressure and circulation. They are also essential for normal brain function and vision. If you usually eat one or two portions of oily fish per week, you may not need a fish oil supplement. If you tend to opt for white fish, then a supplement providing 300mg EPA/DHA per day will support your nutritional needs. If you rarely eat fish, then a higher strength supplement supplying 600mg EPA/DHA is ideal.'

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.