Yet, according to a June 2022 study published in Current developments in nutrition, American adults lack adequate amounts of two of the three main 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 increase your intake to keep your brain and body in top shape.
What are omega-3 fatty acids and how do they support brain health?
“Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated ‘healthy fats’ found in foods of animal and plant origin,” says Bianca Tamburello, RDN, a New York-based dietitian. “It’s important to make sure you’re eating foods high in omega-3s because our bodies can’t make this essential nutrient.”
As we mentioned earlier, omega-3s support overall health in a number of ways, though they’re particularly well-known for promoting and protecting brain health at all stages of life. “This powerful nutrient supports mental health and is associated with less age-related cognitive declineas well as a reduced risk of depression and fewer depressive symptoms,” says Tamburello. She also points out that omega-3s, and DHA in particular, are critical for fetal and newborn brain developmentthat is why they are an integral part of the diet of pregnant women and new mothers.
Types of Omega-3
Tamburello shares that the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
“DHA is considered a particularly important omega-3 and is crucial for the structure of the brain, eyes, and other parts of the body,” says Tamburello. “DHA and EPA have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that can help fight inflammation, which is beneficial in helping related diseases.” Unfortunately, the results of the 2022 study cited earlier show that American adults are not consistently meeting adequate intakes (AI) of these omega-3s.
It seems, however, that many adults meet the AI values for ALA, and this discrepancy makes sense once you understand what their primary 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 and walnuts,” says Tamburello. “Because vegetable 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 flax seed oil to your morning smoothie or top your lunch mason jar salad with chia seeds, some less nutritious food choices can still help you meet AI values for ALA, which (depending on the source) falls between 1.1 grams to 2 grams per day.
“The role of ALA is primarily to convert food into energy that the body can use for regular functioning,” says Tamburello. “Although the body can convert a small amount of ALA to DHA and EPA, this process does not create enough EPA and DHA to replace food with EPA and DHA.” Simply put, it’s 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 healthy for years to come.
3 Ways to Increase Your DHA Intake to Reap More DHA Benefits
In order to get the most benefit from omega-3s for boosting the brain, you’ll need to prioritize getting more of this nutrient in your diet. Here are the best ways to do it.
1. Eat more fish
“To increase your DHA intake, eat more fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna,” says Tamburello. She says they are part of most important sources of DHA* and *EPA, so head to your local fishmonger (and/or browse canned fish and canned seafood options) to get more for your money. She also suggests looking for options that are generally high in omega-3s. “For example, I look for salmon from Chile because it is particularly rich in omega-3s,” she adds.
Note: Tamburello mentions that unlike ALA, DHA does not have an established recommendation for intake per se; 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. That’s an average of 250 milligrams of DHA and EPA combined per serving, although 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 about one gram per day.)
2. Stock up on fish oil or fish oil supplements
“There are very few vegan sources of DHA, which makes it harder for vegans and vegetarians to get this nutrient through food,” says Tamburello. That said, if you follow a vegetarian diet or just don’t like fish and/or seafood, fish oil and fish oil supplements are supplemental sources of DHA approved by the RD.
Learn more about fish oil supplements from a registered dietitian by watching 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 is an option available that can help you increase your DHA benefits: algae oil. “Those who aren’t comfortable taking fish oil supplements can lean on algal oil, which contains both DHA and EPA,” says Tamburello. Additionally, she also suggests that people who fall into this camp should always prioritize healthy sources of ALA, such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds to keep your highest omega game up. 3 on point.