What’s Your Omega-3 Status?

Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD11/22/16

Are your blood levels of omega-3s adequate? 

According to a global survey of omega-3 fatty acids, published in May 2016 in Progress in Lipid Research, if you are an adult from the U.S. or Canada it is likely that your omega-3 blood levels would be categorized as “low” or “very low” (1).

Looking at the data from nearly 300 studies, researchers examined the blood levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA in healthy adults from over 54 countries. The researchers then classified the countries into the categories of “very low,” “low,” “moderate” and “adequate,” as a way to describe and differentiate between each country’s relative percentage of the amount of omega-3s comprising total plasma lipids (the omega-3s found within your circulating blood) and total phospholipids (the omega-3s found within the outer layer of your cells).

Researchers discovered that people living in regions of the world that had adequate blood levels of EPA and DHA included those in the Sea of Japan (Japan, South Korea, and the Primorsky Krai region of Russia), Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Greenland), and regions with indigenous populations who do not consume a Western-type diet. 

On the flipside, countries where people had very low blood levels of EPA and DHA included those in North America (the United States and Canada), Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

What this means is that many individuals around the world, excluding those in the aforementioned near-the-sea countries (where fish may be eaten more often), likely do not have adequate blood levels of EPA and DHA. This is a cause for concern, since blood levels of omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA, have been linked to a decreased risk of cardiac arrest, and sudden cardiac death (1). High blood levels of EPA and DHA, however, have been linked to supporting cognitive function and a reduced risk for chronic disease, including heart disease (1).

Since we know that many countries have populations with inadequate levels of omega-3s, and inadequate levels could potentially lead to health consequences, here’s what you can do about it:

One, choose more omega-3-rich foods each day. Include sardines or salmon on top of your salad or whole grain crackers for lunch and/or incorporate walnuts in your evening grain bowl. Keep in mind that EPA and DHA are found in high concentrations in oily fish like salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring and anchovies, so aim to include these fish in your nutrition plan at least twice per week.

Two, consider supplementation. Despite the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines to consume fish or seafood twice per week, average seafood intake falls below recommendations. Additionally, as evidenced by the recent global survey, blood levels of omega-3s in the United States are very low. Many expert bodies recommend between 250 and 500 mg of EPA plus DHA each day for general health and 500 to 1000 mg of EPA plus DHA each day for heart health, so if you cannot meet your requirement through what you eat, consider taking a quality fish oil or other omega-3 supplement.

Reference

1. Stark, K.D., et al. Global survey of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in the blood stream of healthy adults. Progress in Lipid Research. 2016 May 20;63:132-152.

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