Omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3s, for short) are a type of “healthy fat” that come from the food you eat. They play an important role in many of your body’s systems, such as brain function, reducing inflammation, and normal development and growth. And since your body can’t produce omega-3s on its own, you have to get it from food sources.
When it comes to diabetes, omega-3s can be particularly important because they may help reduce the risk for developing related conditions like heart disease. Many organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the World Health Organization have issued formal recommendations on the importance of getting omega-3s through meals.
Health benefits of omega-3s
Research suggests that adding omega-3s to your diet can help:
- Lower total cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Protect against stroke and heart attack.
- Reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Prevent diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and macular degeneration.
What are the best ways to get omega-3s?
There are three main omega-3s:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
We need to get ALA by eating foods that contain it, such as flax seeds, because it is not produced in the body. ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA in the body, but less than 1 percent of the ALA we ingest is converted into EPA and DHA. Therefore, we must also get most of our EPA and DHA from the food we eat. Unlike ALA, which is mostly found in plant foods, EPA and DHA come from fish and sea plants like marine algae. The best sources of omega-3s include:
- Fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, halibut, and herring.
- Dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach.
- Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, and flax seeds—along with their oils.
- Sea plants such as kelp, marine algae, and nori.
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish a week. Increasing your intake of omega-3s via the food you eat is preferable, but some people might not be able to get what they need through diet alone. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of a prescription omega-3 or a supplement that usually comes in a capsule or oil.
Health warnings to keep in mind
It’s important to know that taking omega-3 supplements may interact with certain diabetes medications (such as glipizide, insulin, or glucophage) and lead to an increase in your blood sugar levels. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to see how they might impact your health.
Another warning: Some types of fish contain high levels of mercury or other toxins. Generally speaking, the higher up on the food chain a fish is, the more likely it is to have higher levels of these substances. For most people, the benefits of eating fish will outweigh these potential risks, but to avoid any negative health effects, make sure you eat a variety of fish (big and small). Ask your healthcare team if you have any questions or concerns.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take fish oil supplements. Fish oil in high doses can possibly interact with, and affect the action of, certain medications, including blood-thinning drugs and drugs for high blood pressure. Potential side effects of fish oil include a fishy aftertaste, belching, stomach disturbances, and nausea.
Finally, dietary supplements are not regulated in the same way as over-the-counter or prescription medications, and should not be used without a physician’s supervision.
Updated by Julia Telfer, 3/17.