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You Ask, I Answer: Omega 3 Insufficiency

toasted-nori-sheets-withbamboo-mat-largeI have to thank you for explaining the differences between omega-3 fatty acids so clearly. Now, when I read about ALA, DHA, and EPA in books and magazines, I know what is being discussed!

I still have one nagging question.  How do you know if you have an omega-3 deficiency?

I know that some vitamin deficiencies cause hair loss and fatigue.  So, are there any warning signs that you need more omega 3 fatty acids in your diet?

Also, what happens if someone gets enough of one type of omega-3 fatty acid (like DHA) but another (like ALA)?

– Brittany Harwitz
(Location Withheld)

Mild fatty acid deficiencies usually do not manifest as physical symptoms.

Moderate deficiencies are a little easier to spot.  Tell-tale signs include dry and scaly skin, liver complications, and, in young children, stunted growth.

Complete — or “true” — deficiencies are very rare and only seen in instances of extremely restrictive diets.

The main concern from insufficient omega-3 fatty acid intake is that, most likely, it means you are consuming a higher amount of omega-6 fatty acids.  For information on why this is problematic, please read this post.

As far as what happens if someone consumed very high amounts of one type of omega-3 and not enough of another (to learn about the three varieties of omega-3 fatty acids, please read this post), keep in mind that while they share many properties, each of the fatty acids also provides different health benefits:

  • ALA (found in flaxseeds, walnuts, and tempeh) helps lower inflammation as well as coronary heart disease risk
  • DHA (found in some fatty fish and microalgae) has been linked to reduced rates of coronary heart disease and inflammation, improved memory function, lowered triglycerides, and reduced risk of hypertension
  • EPA (also found in some fatty fish and sea vegetables) helps reduce coronary heart disease risk and inflammation, improves blood flow, and reduces blood platelet aggregation (and, hence, atherosclerosis risk)

Although ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA, some complications can arise.  This is why diets that meet DHA and EPA needs but not ALA needs are more protective than those which meet ALA needs sufficiently, but fall short with DHA and EPA.

Whenever possible, try to get your omega-3 fatty acids from food, rather than supplements.  These foods also contain vitamins, minerals, and/or phytonutrients that work synergistically and enable the omega 3s to work more efficiently.  This is not to say omega-3 supplements are a waste of money — they are not.

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7 Comments

  1. Kathy R. said on May 29th, 2010

    I’ve heard that Omega 3s would improve HDL. Is this true?

  2. Andy Bellatti said on May 29th, 2010

    Indeed!

  3. Kathy R. said on May 31st, 2010

    What about the foods that companies market saying they have added Omega-3s? (i.e., Smart Balance has butter, peanut butter, milk, a bunch of different items). Is that something that we can believe?

  4. Andy Bellatti said on June 1st, 2010

    Yes, those claims are true. Keep in mind, though, most of those fortified products contain only ALA (as opposed to a combination of ALA, DPA, and EHA).

  5. Kathy R. said on June 1st, 2010

    Thanks for the answers to my questions! Unfortunately, the only fish I can stand to eat is canned tuna, and that is really pushing it. Is that sufficient? If so, how much per week? I was taking fish oil supplements until I saw a report on PCB being in them. Any advice for me?

  6. Courtney R. said on June 3rd, 2010

    What advice would you give patients if they are definitely not going to consume fish? Would you then recommend a fish oil supplement? There has not been a postion statement on this subject from any major health organization or the ADA so I am still on the fence with what I recommend to my patients ( I am an RD). I have Evelyn Tribole’s book The Ultimate Omega-3 diet which I find is an excellent resource.

  7. Andy Bellatti said on June 4th, 2010

    Courtney,

    Sea vegetables are my first recommendation. Otherwise, a DHA and EPA supplement is in order. It doesn’t necessarily have to be from fish; I recommend algae-based supplements for many vegan clients.

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