Food and Nutrition

New Research Shows That Eating Omega-3s Can Significantly Boost Cognition—Even in Young People

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If I was tasked with naming the nutritional equivalent of the 1980s "brat pack," I would probably list protein, fiber, an array of vitamins, and—finally—the illustrious Molly Ringwald of the group, omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are multifaceted team players that improve everything from your skin health to your brain function. And according to a recent study, they're just like Ringwald herself in that they're absolutely timeless.

A new study published in the journal Neurology found that—whether you have 16 candles on your cake or more—it's worth doubling down on your fatty fish—and general omega-3-rich food—consumption. "Most studies looking at omega-3 fatty acids and brain health have been focused on infants and children or older adults with dementia, so the fact that this study shows that omega-3 fats benefit your brain throughout the life cycle is significant. It shows that it's smart to get them in your diet early and throughout all stages of life," says registered dietitian Anne Danahy, RDN, founder of Craving Something Healthy.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty: In this study, middle-aged people whose blood contained more omega-3s—or polyunsaturated fatty acids characterized by the presence of a double bond—showed larger brain volumes and performed better on reasoning and logic tests compared to those with lower omega-3 levels. "What's more, the results showed benefits with just a little bit of omega-3 consumption. You don't need to eat huge quantities of fish or take high doses of a supplement to get the benefits," says Danahy.

While society tends to conflate brain-targeting diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia with old age, preventing—or slowing—these diseases actually begins at an early age. "We usually associate cognitive decline with older adults and Alzheimer's or dementia, but cognitive decline happens slowly, and you might not fully realize the signs until it's too late. It's important to do all you can to support your brain while you are younger, which will help reduce the risk of problems when you're older," says Danahy. Eating your omega-3s is one simple, everyday way to look after the organ upstairs.

In short: No matter how old you are, it's important to make sure you're consuming your daily recommended intake of omega-3s (about 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men). Scroll down for the top three food sources of omega-3s and how much you need to eat to hit your quota (because, seriously, who can eyeball milligrams these days?)

The top 3 food sources of omega-3s to add to your plate at all ages

1. Oily, fatty fish

"Oily fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, and mackerel are tops for omega-3 content, but even lean white fish like cod or tilapia count. If you don't eat fish, it may be worth taking an omega-3 supplement to help protect your aging brain," says Danahy. A three-ounce serving of wild salmon contains about 887 milligrams of omega-3s, while a two-ounce serving of sardines contains about 556 milligrams.

2. Flaxseeds

The fatty acids in these teeny, tiny seeds are the reason they've been linked to helping protect against cardiovascular disease. Per the Mayo Clinic, one to two tablespoons of flax seeds per day is the nutritional sweet spot, and you should consider grinding or crushing them (or just buying flax meal), so your body can actually make use of those omega-3s.

3. Chia seeds

You'll get a powerful combo of omega-3s and fiber with chia seeds. Two tablespoons of these babies contain a whopping 4.2 grams of omega-3s, so you can add them to your smoothie and know you're set for the day.

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