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Who Needs Omega-3s?

Do you? Your baby? Your teen? Your parents?

How Should I Get More Omega-3s?

What’s the best way to get your omega-3s? Improve your diet, experts say.

Fatty fish are a good source of DHA and EPA. Although there are plant sources of omega-3s – in foods like flax, olive oil, and some leafy greens – they don’t seem to be quite as effective. Plants contain a fatty acid called ALA, which has to be broken down into DHA and EPA in the body. Many food products are fortified with algae oil and can be a good source of DHA.

Children and women who are breastfeeding or pregnant must be careful of the toxins that can build up in some seafood, such as shark, swordfish, and tilefish. They should eat smaller fatty fish – like salmon and trout – and eat no more than 12 ounces a week.

What about omega-3 supplements? Although getting nutrients from food is always preferable, adding a supplement might be smart. Also many foods are now fortified with omega-3s, such as some milk products, juices, breads, eggs, cooking oils, and snack foods.

“Omega -3 supplements are extremely safe for most people,” says Leopold. He cautions that anyone with a bleeding disorder – or who takes a medicine that could affect bleeding, like the blood thinner Coumadin – needs to talk to a doctor first before taking fish oils. Evidence suggests that eating less than 3 grams a day is unlikely to result in bleeding.

Are omega-3 supplements for children an option? “While you must talk to a pediatrician first, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t consider giving an appropriate dosage of omega-3 supplements to a child,” Leopold tells WebMD. Just keep in mind that a doctor needs to work out the correct dosage.

Omega-3s: A Not-So-Alternative Treatment

Although many people might consider omega-3 fatty acids an “alternative” medicine, experts stress that omega 3s are really a complementary treatment. They seem to work best not on their own, but side by side with traditional medicine, often amplifying the effects of prescription drugs.

“Omega-3s may not replace your medicines for arthritis or depression,” says Gail Underbakke, RD, nutrition coordinator of the Preventative Cardiology Program at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. “But they might allow you to take lower doses of those drugs.”

So don’t look at omega-3s as an alternative treatment that you administer by yourself. Instead, discuss omega-3 supplements or fortified foods with your doctor. Figure out how you should be using omega-3s – and at what dose -- in the context of your overall health and treatment. And make sure that you don’t have any medical conditions – or take any medicines – that would make omega-3s too risky.

“With a few exceptions, I don’t think there’s any problem with the average person taking a fish oil supplement daily, like a multivitamin,” says Guarneri. “By and large, an extra gram of fish oil is only going to help you.”

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Reviewed on March 30, 2011

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