How much Omega 3 do I need? Do I really need to take a supplement?
With research coming out all of the time on the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids for brain function (and particularly for depression), quite a number of people have emailed me about how much Omega 3s they need. And the answer is: it depends.
What we do know is that we need an appropriate intake of Omega 3s to balance our Omega 6 intake. Many people in the U.S. consume fifteen or twenty times the amount of Omega 6s as Omega 3s (or more) – an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of over 15 to 1. It should be 4 to 1 or, ideally, even 1 to 1. A 1 to 1 ratio simply means you are consuming a gram of Omega 3s for every gram of Omega 6s.
How did we get so far from our ideal intake? The answer is at least another article if not an entire website, but the short answer is that our current diets of processed foods rely too much on high Omega 6 ingredients (most notably vegetable oils). Our meat supply has far lower levels too. Animals that eat grass have higher levels of Omega 3s in their muscles. As we have replaced a diet of wild game with meat from animals finished on feedlots, our own meat has less of the necessary Omega 3 fatty acid.
How Much Omega 3?
In a 2006 article by Hibbeln and colleagues Healthy Intakes of N-3 and N-6 Fatty Acids, researchers concluded that Americans should consume something on the order of 3.5 grams of EPA and DHA a day to reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and homicide. In The Omega Connection, Andrew Stoll recommends 4 grams of EPA a day for those fighting depression.
These are very high intakes of EPA and DHA.
EPA and DHA, by the way, are specific long chain fatty acids found most abundantly in fish and seafood, though I have also provided articles here on a number of other foods:
Such High Intakes for Depression?
The Stoll recommendation of 4 grams of EPA per day (and 4 grams of EPA + DHA per day for depression in pregnancy and postpartum) is very high but likely necessary to help fill what has probably been a life-long lack of long chain Omega 3 fatty acids in our diet.
Some people’s budgets are busted before they reach that 4 gram mark. Mine was. But some is better than none, particularly if you have consumed a diet high in vegetable oils and low in the Omega 3 foods listed above.
Such High Intakes for Quality of Life?
The 2006 study by Hibbeln and colleagues in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recommends we continue to consume three grams a day of EPA and DHA. But they make the point: “A healthy dietary allowance of 3.5 g EPA + DHA/d, which is based on the current per capita background available intake of n-6 fatty acids and ALNA in the United States could be reduced to one-tenth of that amount if the intake of n-6 fatty acids, in particular LA, can be lowered to <2% of total energy.”
Their point is that your consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids might not have to be as high as 3.5 grams per day if you reduce your Omega 6 intake. You might be able to get away with .35 grams everyday – an intake that could possibly be met with wild game and eggs and no seafood or fish oil supplements whatsoever.
Whether you need to take an Omega 3 supplement for the rest of your life to achieve optimum health really depends on your diet. If you have enough in your diet you do not need to rely on a supplement.
I actually have a very favorable intake of Omega 3 fatty acids in my diet but I still keep a bottle of cod liver oil in my refrigerator. I take a couple of teaspoons a couple of times each week when I remember. When I am under stress and not eating as well, I take more.