Omega-3s: The Difference Between EPA, DHA, and ALA

By Jordan Stachel, MS, RDN

January 11, 2023

Omega 3S 2023

Confusion surrounding fats is extremely common. Many people do not know the difference between the various omega-3 fatty acids, what foods are good sources of each type of omega-3 fatty acid, and how these different omega-3s may impact health and well-being.

Read on to learn more about omega-3s and how to include them more frequently in your diet.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

All omega-3s are unsaturated fats, which are the most advantageous type of fat from a heart health and longevity perspective. Unsaturated fats are entirely anti-inflammatory and do not contribute to the buildup of bad cholesterol (or LDL = low-density lipoprotein). Research shows that unsaturated fats actually improve blood cholesterol levels and lower overall systemic inflammation in the body.

EPA is one of several omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are an advantageous sub-type of polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot make, so we must eat them to reap the benefits. Omega-3 fats are very vital for overall health, but specifically, they help to lower inflammation in the heart and the brain. This leads to improving the health outcomes for individuals with cardiovascular disease, lowering cardiovascular disease risk for healthy individuals, and improving cognition and anxiety levels.

EPA is found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and herring. To increase your EPA intake, try out some of these meal ideas below. Report back and let us know which ones worked best for you!

  • Lunch: green salad topped with a sprinkle of ground flaxseeds, dried fruit, and grilled salmon, and drizzled with an olive oil-based dressing
  • Dinner: tuna poke bowl with wild rice, sesame seeds, seaweed salad, and sliced avocado

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

DHA is the second type of omega-3 fatty acid that is also found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon. A vegetarian source of DHA can come from seaweed but is not converted as efficiently in the body. DHA is especially essential for the nervous system and brain.

During pregnancy, a woman should supplement with a prenatal that is inclusive of DHA while a baby’s nervous system is developing. During infancy, babies continue to need DHA to thrive. DHA is present in breast milk, but if you are feeding with formula, ensure that the formula is enriched with DHA.

Because it is difficult to get enough DHA through diet alone, many people will supplement with high-quality fish oil to help boost their intake. Because of DHA’s central role in brain health, supplementation of adequate dosage has been linked to improved mental health outcomes, including improvement for people living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression.

If you are trying to boost your DHA intake via the diet, try to consume 2-3 servings of fatty fish per week. Try to vary your intake between salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring.

Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

A final type of omega-3 fatty acid is ALA. ALA is unique from EPA and DHA, as ALA is found in plant-based sources. Some foods that are good sources of ALA include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil. ALA can also be consumed from EPA and DHA food sources if a person is consuming animal-based foods that feed on good sources of ALA. For example, if you consume fish that eats ALA-rich grasses, you are also indirectly consuming ALA.

Positive research has shown that regular consumption of foods rich in ALA has heart and brain protective effects. If you are wanting to boost your ALA intake, try using some of these meal and snack ideas:

  • Breakfast: chia seed pudding topped with berries and slivered almonds
  • Snack: trail mix with walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, and dark chocolate chips
  • Lunch: salmon salad with olive oil-based dressing
  • Dinner: street corn tacos topped with avocado and spiced walnuts/pepitas

Overall, regular consumption of all types of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and ALA) is health-promoting, as all of these fats promote an anti-inflammatory state in the body. Report back, what are your favorite sources of omega-3-rich foods, and how do you enjoy them?

Jordan Stachel holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from The University of Southern California and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She has several years of experience helping clients reach their health goals through her clinical work within private practice. Jordan is most fulfilled when guiding others towards making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children through the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.

References:

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/
  2. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/
  3. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha
  4. https://walnuts.org/nutrition/teamgoodfat/the-science-behind-plant-based-omega-3-ala/
  5. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17290-omega-3-fatty-acids
  6. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids
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