Last Updated on August 17, 2023 by Tina Liu
Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be produced by the human body itself, which is why a balanced diet is very important. This includes high-fat fish on your diet.
If fish just isn’t your thing, or you just want to know how you can meet your omega-3 fatty acid requirements by taking fish oil supplements, then keep reading.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are considered “good” fats. In nutrition, a distinction is mainly made between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The name refers to the positions of the double bonds in the fatty acid molecule.
Depending on where the double bonds are and how many double bonds there are, the fatty acid molecules have different chemical properties and different biological functions in your body.
What are fatty acids?
Fats consist of several fatty acids that can be divided into three groups:
- Saturated fat
- Monounsaturated fatty acids
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids
Saturated fatty acids are absorbed in the body through food, for example in the form of butter, meat or coconut fat. The more saturated fatty acids a food contains, the firmer its consistency at room temperature.
So you can easily see just by looking which fatty acids an edible oil contains.
Mono- and Poly-Saturated Fatty Acids
Monounsaturated fatty acids are generally better for health than saturated fats, with polyunsaturated fatty acids being said to have more health-promoting effects. They are ingested with food and some of them can also be formed by the body from saturated fatty acids.
You can find unsaturated fatty acids in nuts and seeds, for example. For your cholesterol level, an intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids is better than saturated fatty acids.
Which foods contain omega-3 fatty acids?
We normally get enough omega-6 fatty acids through our food. We cover a large part of our requirements for omega-6 fatty acids with the following foods:
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are often neglected. Many plants contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), but according to current knowledge, the omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish are particularly valuable.
These include the omega-3 fatty acids:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Since fatty fish is not regularly on everyone’s menu in high enough quantities, and cod liver oil and the taste of fish are not for everyone, many people much prefer to use omega-3 capsules with fish oil, or to take dietary supplements with oils that do not have a fishy taste.
The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The two omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are found in the form of phospholipids in the cell membranes of various tissues. It is therefore not surprising that they are also important for other organs apart from the cardiovascular system.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for the health and function of the body, including:
- Immune system
- Sperm cells
If the cell membranes and body cells lack polyunsaturated (long-chain) fatty acids, they become stiffer. This can severely limit the function of membrane proteins and the cells can no longer function properly with regard to:
- Signal forwarding
- Cell-to-cell contact
- Transport of substances
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects, lower blood lipid levels and are good for the immune system, among other benefits.
Effects on the brain
DHA is said to play an essential role in brain development, while EPA seems to have an impact on behavior and mood.
Both omega-3 fatty acids form neuroprotective metabolic products. In combination, according to scientists, they could improve symptoms in ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, depression, and a number of other mental illnesses.
Researchers also see a connection between low DHA and EPA levels and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia or Huntington’s disease. One study with healthy test participants suggests that the intake of DHA and EPA using fish oil capsules could have a positive effect on the following conditions:
- Brain fog
DHA is said to strengthen certain membrane properties of nerve cells and is involved in the reading of genetic information and communication between nerve cells.(1, 3) In experiments with rats, the administration of DHA was even able to help the brain regenerate better after an injury.(2)
In addition, studies provide Evidence that polyunsaturated fatty acids also bring your neurotransmitter budget in order. (4)
Effects on the immune system
Metabolic products from EPA and DHA can counteract inflammation caused, for example, by metabolic products of arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is one of the omega-6 fatty acids that the body also needs.
However, the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids must be right so that the immune system can function optimally and strengthen the body’s defenses.
Effects on the muscles
Scientists believe it is possible to improve muscle function and metabolism by increasing the intake of long-chain, polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.
According to studies, there is a connection between a diet rich in high-dose saturated oils and their negative effects on the organism. Saturated oils are associated with pathological obesity and type 2 diabetes. (6, 7)
A comparison with the traditional high-fat diet of the Inuit shows that this is not simply due to the high fat content of the food source. This is because it is characterized by a very high content of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats and can still promote a healthy metabolism. (8)
Scientists also see a direct connection to the muscles, which benefit from a high-fat diet with omega-3 fatty acids.
How can fish oil help build muscle?
In particular, the two omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are said to have a positive effect on protein metabolism of the muscles. (5, 9) The eicosapentaenoic acid EPA is said to promote muscle building more than DHA.
Likewise, the intake of food supplements with EPA, such as fish oil in the form of fish oil capsules, should be able to reduce muscle breakdown as a result of illness or injury. However, the exact mechanisms behind the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on the muscles have not yet been adequately researched.
Nevertheless, athletes in particular are advised to ensure that they have an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids – be it through natural foods or through omega-3 capsules.
Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency
Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in many important functions in the human body, such as a healthy brain metabolism, memory and eyesight. The causes of a deficiency are mostly due to a diet deficiency.
On the other hand, an unbalanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can also be the cause.
Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
- Poor eyesight
- Skin problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Joint pain
In order to stay healthy and fit, you should ensure that you have a sufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegetable Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You can get omega-3 fatty acids not only from fish or fish oil supplements, but also from plant-based and vegan sources.
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Algae oil
- Hemp oil
- Walnut oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Linseed oil
- Kidney beans
Plants increasingly contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), although microalgae (also known as marine fatty acids) mainly contain DHA and EPA.
The Optimal Ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3
The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is also important. Omega-6 fatty acids are often consumed in higher amounts because foods containing these fatty acids are consumed more often.
Often too many omega-6 fatty acids are ingested through food, which disrupts the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It is estimated that the average western diet has an omega-6 and omega-3 ratio of 20: 1.6.
Excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids can have a negative impact on the development of the brain or on the Structure and function. The optimal ratio here is 5: 1 (Omega 6: Omega 3).
The daily requirement for omega-3 fatty acids should make up 0.5% of the total energy.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Fish Oil
Fish oil is obtained from wild-caught fish or from particularly fatty types of fish (such as salmon), and is therefore very rich in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. The fatty acids in fish oil are mainly linked as so-called triglycerides.
EPA and DHA make up a large proportion of the fatty acids in fish oil.
Fish Oil and Contaminants
Fish oil has already been researched quite well, which is why we can know more precisely which dose can be expected to have which effect. That means more certainty and significantly better efficiency.
However, regardless of how the fish is sourced, fish is known to be frequently contaminated with heavy metals, pollutants and environmental toxins – and this also applies to the fish oil obtained from supplements. However, this does not necessarily apply to every product with fish oil, as one study found. (10)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Algae Oil
Algae oil is a vegetable oil and is a good and effective alternative to adding DHA to the diet. The DHA is extracted from the algae and added to food, beverages or dietary supplements.
What Are the Benefits of Algae Oil?
Algae oil is plant-based and the best supplement for vegetarians and vegans to get the important omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, it is sustainable and has the advantage that there is no risk of pollution from the sea.
Studies show that the effectiveness of algae oil is the same as the omega-3 fatty acids in cold water fish. Research also found that supplementing with DHA from algae oil can lower blood lipid levels in people without heart disease.
Additionally, one study found that the microalgae schizochytrium can relieve rheumatic symptoms.
Animal studies show that DHA from algae oil is particularly beneficial to health. For example, supplementing mice with a DHA algae oil compound has improved memory.
Algae oil is just as effective as fish oil and also a more sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids. (11)
Fish Oil Vs. Algae Oil: What Are the Differences?
Fish oil and algae oil are valuable sources of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids – especially in the form of EPA and DHA. Such polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids are said to lower the risk parameters for cardiovascular diseases. (11)
The combination of high levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol with a low level of HDL cholesterol in the blood is said to lead to the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). A high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids is closely related to this.
In order to improve heart health, you should enrich your diet with food sources that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids.
The current research unclear as to whether fish oil or algae oil is better for health. Both fish oil and algae oil are very suitable as valuable sources of omega-3 fatty acids for food supplements.
Studies have shown that fish oil and algae oil have been able to improve blood lipid levels and have a positive influence on the balance of lipids in the cells. Algae oil has the advantage that it is extracted from the algae and is more sustainable.
Fish stocks are decreasing, and fish oil (unlike algae oil) can contain contaminants. Therefore, algae oil is a good alternative for people who are concerned about contaminants, have a plant-based diet, or for whom a sustainable lifestyle is important.
The body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids itself, but they are essential. If you don’t eat a lot or no fish at all, you should take care to get the important fatty acids into your body in another way.
Omega-3 capsules with fish oil are a great option for this. But algae oil is also particularly suitable for vegetarians and sustainably living people as a good and equally effective plant-based alternative.
Nutrition expert. Blog writer. Health enthusiast.