Omega-3 fatty acids, or “omega-3s,” have the potential to reduce swelling and achiness in your body. Reducing swelling can improve your overall well-being and reduce the suffering that is associated with some joint health conditions. In this article, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about omega-3 fatty acids. Then, we share how powerful omega-3 fatty acids benefit those with joint health concerns
What are omega-3 fatty acids and where can I find them?
Dietary fats come in many forms. Contrary to what you might believe, eating the right type of fats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. You can divide dietary fats into two main groups: saturated and unsaturated. Some refer to saturated fats as “unhealthy fats,” although this has recently been a topic of debate. You can find saturated fats in foods such as beef, pork, and cream. You can find healthier, unsaturated fats in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, and fish. Many people call unsaturated fats “healthy fats,” and for a good reason.
Unsaturated fats include omega -3s and omega-6s. You can find omega-6s in corn, soy, and peanut oil. Omega-6s are inflammatory in nature. Omega-3s include ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Although all omega-3 fats have health benefits, EPA and DHA, in particular, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
ALA is in flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil (Table 1). EPA and DHA are primarily in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. The latter two omega-3s are often referred to as omega-3 fish oils. You can also find EPA and DHA in fortified foods like eggs, milk, yogurt, soy products, and juice.
|Table 1: Selected Food Sources of ALA, EPA, and DHA|
|Food||Grams per serving|
|Flaxseed oil, 1 tbsp||7.26|
|Chia seeds, 1 ounce||5.06|
|English walnuts, 1 ounce||2.57|
|Flaxseed, whole, 1 tbsp||2.35|
|Salmon, Atlantic, farmed cooked, 3 ounces||1.24||0.59|
|Salmon, Atlantic, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||1.22||0.35|
|Herring, Atlantic, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.94||0.77|
|Canola oil, 1 tbsp||1.28|
|Sardines, canned in tomato sauce, drained, 3 ounces*||0.74||0.45|
|Mackerel, Atlantic, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.59||0.43|
|Salmon, pink, canned, drained, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.63||0.28|
|Soybean oil, 1 tbsp||0.92|
|Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||0.44||0.4|
|Mayonnaise, 1 tbsp||0.74|
|Oysters, eastern, wild, cooked, 3 ounces||0.14||0.23||0.3|
|Sea bass, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.47||0.18|
|Edamame, frozen, prepared, ½ cup||0.28|
|Shrimp, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.12||0.12|
|Refried beans, canned, vegetarian, ½ cup||0.21|
|Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.07||0.1|
|Tuna, light, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces*||0.17||0.02|
|Tilapia, cooked, 3 ounces*||0.04||0.11|
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page, 2015.
While your body can convert some ALA to EPA and DHA, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, this is an inefficient process. Therefore, getting your EPA and DHA from food is much more efficient.
How much omega-3 fatty acids do I need?
The answer to this question can begin with “that depends.” According to the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Americans can get enough omega-3s in their diets by eating a variety of foods rich in omega-3s.
The only omega-3 with a government established “adequate intake” (AI) level is ALA. The AI for ALA is 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women each day. That said, the established AI may not be enough for adults with certain health conditions. While there is no official AI level for EPA and DHA (the omega-3s from fish), these two types of omega-3s are essential for overall health and can decrease swelling and discomfort.
In addition to eating a variety of foods containing omega-3s, the American Heart Association recommends two or more servings of a variety of fatty fish or seafood each week. Eating the recommended amount of fatty fish will provide at least 450-500 mg of EPA and DHA.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that people consume omega-3s primarily through food, so in addition to fish think about ways you can increase your intake of nuts and seeds (such as walnuts and flaxseed), and when possible use plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil) for cooking and salads dressings.
How do omega-3 fatty acids benefit those with Joint Health Concerns?
In a 2014 position statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated that fish consumption can reduce inflammation and is most likely anti-inflammatory. They also concluded that EPA and DHA specifically play a role in improving symptoms in people with joint health concerns.
In 2018, researchers concluded that higher intake of fish (greater than 2 times per week) was associated with lower disease activity scores in people with the joint condition known as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Other studies have looked at the beneficial role of walnuts and have suggested that they have similar effects on markers of inflammation to those provided by fish.
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