How healthy are omega-3 fatty acids really?

Taking capsules with omega-3 fatty acids does not always make sense.

Taking capsules with omega-3 fatty acids does not always make sense.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered particularly healthy. They are also popular as dietary supplements. What you should know about their effects.To maintain health , our body needs a number of organic compounds that are essential to life. A deficiency can have devastating effects. These include, among other things, vitamins, minerals, but also certain fatty acids. Omega-3 (and also omega-6) fatty acids are considered particularly healthy.

What are Omega-3 fatty acids?

These are polyunsaturated fatty acids. To understand: Saturated fatty acids are considered “bad fats”. When consumed in excess, they increase cholesterol levels and thus increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. They can be found in animal foods such as meat, eggs or dairy products.

Unsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, help maintain body functions and are therefore very healthy. Omega-3 (and also omega-6) fatty acids are considered essential. We have to get them from food because the body cannot produce them itself.

Three main types are distinguished:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): It is found in nuts and seeds and therefore also in vegetable oils (particularly abundant in linseed, rapeseed and walnut oil). It is also found in soy.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is found primarily in fish and seafood such as salmon, anchovies, tuna, mackerel, herring, shellfish and microalgae.

What function do omega-3 fatty acids have?

Omega-3 fatty acids fulfill a variety of tasks in the body.

  • As building blocks of the cell membrane, they keep the covers of our cells supple.
  • They are particularly important for the brain cells. It was observed that people who frequently ate fish were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Another study showed that students who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids learned faster and better and had fewer behavioral problems.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are also needed for the formation of nerve cells.
  • They are also important for vision. There are high concentrations of the substance in the retina.
  • They are considered anti-inflammatory.
  • They also lower the concentration of triglycerides (blood fats). In this way they reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • It is also said to help maintain normal blood pressure.

What is the daily requirement for omega-3 fatty acids?

The German Nutrition Society (DGE) states as a guideline: around 0.5 percent of daily food energy should consist of alpha-linolenic acid.

For an adult with an average calorie requirement of 2,400 kilocalories, this corresponds to around 1.3 grams of ALA – the amount of a tablespoon of rapeseed oil, for example. A daily requirement of 250 to 300 mg is given for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This can be covered with one or two fish meals a week – according to the DGE.

What are the benefits of additives in food and nutritional supplements?

Some food manufacturers advertise an increased content of omega-3 fatty acids in their products, such as margarine, bread, energy drinks or sports nutrition. In addition, the essential fatty acids are also offered in capsules as dietary supplements.

The consumer advice center makes it clear: “The basic rule is that healthy people consume enough omega-3 fatty acids with a wholesome and balanced diet. If you avoid fish, such as with a vegan diet, hardly any eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA ). In addition, the conversion of the n-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to EPA and DHA in the human organism is very limited. EPA and DHA can then be supplied via fortified foods (e.g. fortified oil or margarine). 

There is therefore no reason for mixed eaters to resort to dietary supplements or fortified products. Stiftung Warentest also highlights this in a check of Omega-3 capsules. There is no reason to take such drugs – according to the assessment. With a balanced diet, you can consume enough omega-3 fatty acids.

However, the product testers found no complaints: the products examined contained the amounts of fatty acids stated on the packaging and no harmful substances were found in them. According to the experts, they are not harmful to health, just unnecessary.

Can consuming too much omega-3 fatty acids be dangerous?

In a statement on the fortification of foods with omega-3 fatty acids, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) recommends setting maximum quantities. Because consuming too much omega-3 fatty acids can have negative consequences.

The BfR explains that in various studies at very high intake levels, “an increased cholesterol level, an impairment of the natural immune system, especially in older people, and an increased tendency to bleed” were observed.

What consumer advocates advise

The consumer advice center provides the following tips on its website:

  • Instead of taking dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids without medical advice, you should eat a portion of fish, preferably (fatty) sea fish, once or twice a week and use linseed, walnut, rapeseed or soybean oil, depending on your taste. Small amounts of walnuts or almonds daily are also recommended.
  • Oily sea fish (such as herring, kippers, mackerel, sardines, tuna) are also available as canned food, for example to top bread with.
  • Vegans can supplement their diet with DHA-rich oils from microalgae (Schizochytrium, Ulkenia) to cover their omega-3 fatty acid needs.
  • In order to achieve normal triglyceride levels, in addition to consuming foods rich in DHA, you should also ensure sufficient physical activity and a low-sugar diet and avoid alcohol if possible.
  • Do you want to eat a cholesterol-conscious diet? Then you should especially eat more fiber (vegetables, fruit, whole grain products). Oat flakes, oat bran (beta-glucan), apples, citrus and berry fruits are well suited to slightly lower cholesterol levels


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