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Omega 3 supplements, better than the real thing?

Most people think that omega-3 fatty acids consumption can help to reduce risk of heart disease or cancer, however there are insufficient studies to actually prove this.


The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can be manufactured by the body while the short chain omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid) ALA is an essential fatty acid which cannot be produced by the body and has to be obtained from food.


DHA is essential for proper mental and physical growth and development in fetus and children under 5 years old. Increased DHA intake is only necessary for children below 5 years old and pregnant or lactating women. The body can convert some of the ALA consumed to DHA and EPA, however only 8% to 12% of ALA is converted to EPA and 1% of ALA to DHA.


General guidelines for omega 3 intake


1. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that healthy adults should ingest a minimum of 250 mg/day EPA plus DHA but no more than 3 g/day of EPA plus DHA. Individuals can get their recommended daily intake of EPA and DHA from their diet by consuming fish or other seafood one to two times per week.


2. Most people get enough ALA from the foods they eat, the National Institutes of Health recommends 1.1g for females and 1.6g for males (19 years and above).


3. Natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids in a healthy wholesome diet are encouraged. This is because natural sources, such as fish, provide a wide variety of essential nutrients and phytonutrients that supplements do not: such as proteins, vitamins and minerals.


Benefits of consuming omega 3

  1. Reduce triglyceride levels.

  2. May help to reduce risk of mortality in individuals who already have existing heart disease, but not in preventing heart disease.

  3. Beneficial for helping vegans, individuals with hypertriglyceridemia or special populations such as lactating or pregnant women to meet their omega-3 fatty acid requirements.

Risks of omega 3 supplements

  1. High levels of saturated fats and trans-fats due to oxidation of the fats.

  2. Potential side effects from taking omega-3 supplements, even when taken in small amounts, may include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.

  3. Avoid consumption of omega-3 supplements with warfarin, aspirin, or other anticoagulant medicines as this may lead to bleeding problems.

  4. High doses of DHA and/or EPA (900 mg/day of EPA plus 600 mg/day DHA or more for several weeks) might reduce immune function. Doses of 2–15 g/day EPA and/or DHA might also increase bleeding time.

As a vegan, individual with hypertriglyceridemia or special population such as lactating or pregnant women who may require using omega-3 supplements, what should I look out for?


1. Keep within the daily recommended intake, always check the content and ingredient list before taking the supplements. If possible, get your source from a certified doctor as these sources tend to have higher purity than the ones bought from pharmacies.


2. The source of omega-3 matters: Studies showed that even when DHA content from oily fish and algae were equal, plasma EPA and DPA levels in the body increased only from consumption of oily fish, and did not change with algae-derived omega-3 oil consumption.


3. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommended intake of EPA + DHA has been 2–4 g/day for patients with hypertriglyceridemia. To achieve this amount, patients may need to consume more than fish oil dietary supplement capsules per day, potentially costing even more than prescribed products and increasing intake of saturated fats and oxidised lipids. Furthermore, it is hard for patients to determine the actual amount consumed from supplements due to inaccuracy of the actual content compared with that stated on the labels.


Natural sources


Sources of ALA include numerous vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, peas), some nuts (e.g. walnuts), rapeseed/canola oil, soybean oil, tofu, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and pumpkin seeds. *This list is not extensive.


The primary source of EPA and DHA is seafood, especially oily fish. A wide variety of omega-3 enriched functional foods can be found such as omega-3 enriched eggs, milk, tofu, cheese, etc.

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