Yet according to a June 2022 study published in Current Developments in Nutrition, American adults lack adequate amounts of two of the three major omega-3 fatty acids—including DHA, which is arguably the most important brain-boosting fatty acid of the bunch.
Keep reading to learn more about omega-3s, the different types, and how to boost your intake of them to keep your brain and body in tip-top shape.
What are omega-3 fatty acids and how do they support brain health?
“Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated or ‘healthy fats’ found in both animal and plant foods,” says Bianca Tamburello, RDN, a dietitian based in New York. “It's important to make sure you're eating omega-3 rich foods because our bodies cannot make this essential nutrient.”
As we mentioned earlier, omega-3s support general health in many ways, though they’re especially renowned for promoting and protecting brain health through all stages of one’s life. “This powerful nutrient supports mental health and is associated with less age-related cognitive decline, as well as a decreased risk of depression and less depressive symptoms,” Tamburello says. She also points out that omega-3s—and DHA in particular—are critical for fetal and newborn brain development, which is why they’re integral to diets of expectant and new mothers.
Types of omega-3s
Tamburello shares that three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
“DHA is thought to be an especially important omega-3 and is crucial for the structure of the brain, eyes, and other body parts,” says Tamburello. “Both DHA and EPA have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can help fight inflammation, which is beneficial in helping correlated diseases.” Unfortunately, findings from the 2022 study cited earlier shows that American adults don’t meet the adequate intake (AI) of these omega-3s on a regular basis.
It appears, however, that many adults are reaching the AI values for ALA—and this discrepancy makes sense once you understand what their top food sources are. “ALA is found in plant foods, seeds, and seed oils including flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, soybeans and soybean oil, canola oil, chia seeds, and walnuts,” Tamburello says. “Because plant oils are found in many processed foods, ALA is more common in the western diet than DHA and EPA.” In other words, even if you don’t add flaxseed oil to your morning smoothie or top your lunchtime mason jar salad with chia seeds, some less nutritious food choices can still help you reach the AI values for ALA, which (depending on the source) is between 1.1 grams to 2 grams per day.
“ALA's role is mostly in converting food into energy that the body can use for regular functioning,” Tamburello says. “Although the body can convert a small amount of ALA into DHA and EPA, this process does not create enough EPA and DHA to replace foods with EPA and DHA.” Simply put, it’s well worth taking a closer look at your diet to make sure you’re getting enough DHA (and EPA) to keep your brain, mood, and body in good health for years to come.
3 ways to increase your DHA intake to reap more DHA benefits
In order to reap the greatest brain-boosting DHA benefits from omega-3s, you’ll need to prioritize getting more of this nutrient into your diet. Here are the best ways to do so.
1. Eat more fish
“To boost your DHA intake, eat more fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna,” Tamburello says. She says that they’re among the most significant sources of both DHA *and* EPA, so head to your local fishmonger (and/or browse canned fish and tinned seafood options) to get more nutrient-rich bang for your buck. She also suggests seeking out options that are generally rich in omega-3s. “For example, I look for salmon from Chile because it's particularly high in omega-3s,” she adds.
Note: Tamburello mentions that unlike ALA, DHA doesn’t have an established recommendation for intake on its own; instead, health organizations often suggest combined DHA and EPA values. “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating two servings of fish (about eight ounces total) per week for overall health. This adds up to an average of 250 milligrams of combined DHA and EPA per serving, though consuming more DHA and EPA is also beneficial,” she says. (People with cardiovascular disease are advised to increase their combined daily intake of DHA and EPA to approximately one gram per day.)
2. Stock up on fish oil or fish oil supplements
“There are very few vegan sources of DHA, making it more challenging for vegans and vegetarians to get this nutrient through diet,” says Tamburello. With that said, if you follow a vegetarian diet or simply don’t enjoy fish and/or seafood, fish oil and fish oil supplements are additional RD-approved sources of DHA.
Learn more about fish oil supplements from a registered dietitian by checking out this video:
3. Supplement with algae oil
If fish oil and fish oil supplements are a hard pass for you (whether you stick to a vegan or plant-based diet or otherwise), rest assured that there’s an option available that can seamlessly help boost your DHA benefits: algae oil. “Those who are not comfortable taking fish oil supplements can lean on algae oil, which contains both DHA and EPA,” Tamburello says. In addition, she also suggests that people who fall into this camp should still prioritize healthy sources of ALAs, such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds to keep your greater omega-3 game on point.
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