The Serious Reason You Need to Get Your Omega-3 Levels Tested
These healthy fats may help head off heart disease and other ailments, but most of us don’t come close to getting enough. Now, there’s an easy way to know for sure.
Fat is back
The popularity of avocado toast, coconut oil, and coffee dosed with grass-fed butter demonstrate that fat is back in a big way. Much of the credit for its triumphant return is due to scientific research on omega-3 fatty acids and their positive impact on everything from mood and cognition to heart disease and maintaining a healthy body weight. The trick? Knowing whether you’re getting enough of these healthy fats.
The truth about omega-3s
For years, any kind of dietary fat was considered bad for us, and especially for our hearts. And certainly, some types aren’t great—trans fats have been shown to elevate bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk for developing cardiac disease, and the jury is still out on saturated fats.
But experts agree that mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (MUFAs and PUFAs) tend to have the opposite effect, and omega-3s, in particular, can help fight the cellular inflammation that is a strong indicator of heart disease as well as many other ailments. Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3s is associated with lowered risk of developing heart disease, as well as related risk factors such as high blood triglyceride levels and high blood pressure. On the strength of this evidence, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get between 250 and 500 milligrams of O3s a week, the amount you’d get from two servings (8 ounces) of seafood. Make sure you know these other myths about fat you need to stop believing.
More than brain food
Omega-3 fatty acids are comprised of three types: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Other fat-rich foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil tend to be highest in ALA, which our bodies use for energy. But EPA and DHA have the strongest association with heart health. While our bodies can convert ALA into these two other forms, they’re not terribly efficient at doing so. “Whatever ALA you’re getting, only about one-tenth of it ends up as DHA or EPA, which is the most valuable for your health,” says Glassman.
So even if you’re eating a relatively healthy diet, it can be tough to get optimal levels of those healthy fats. Fatty fish like salmon are a top source, but research routinely demonstrates most of us don’t get enough. And other good sources of healthy fats, like nuts and grass-fed dairy or meat, can be caloric when consumed in large quantities. That’s why you may have seen things like DHA-fortified milk.
Getting the benefits
To reap the benefits, you have to get enough omega-3s in your diet, since your body can’t make them on its own. Here’s the thing: Fats don’t have an official recommended daily allowance (RDA) the way other nutrients do, so it’s tough to tally up your intake for the day. And you won’t suffer physical side effects from a deficit the way you would from, say, an iron deficiency. So really, Keri Glassman, RD, founder of nutritiouslife.com says, “You’re not necessarily going to know if you’re getting optimal levels from food alone.” One way people try to address this is by taking fish oil supplements. Check out all of the health benefits you can get from fish oil.
You might need a blood test
You can find out how your omega-3 intake is going with a simple blood test, which is no more difficult than getting your cholesterol or blood sugar checked. The technology has been around for more than a decade, but the test still isn’t part of the standard panel done during routine blood work. You have to request it from your healthcare provider, although lately, DIY kits you order online, administer at home, and mail in for results have proliferated.
How testing works
Fatty acids tend to collect in the membranes of your cells, so a simple blood test can measure the concentration of omega-3s and even determine what percentage of that level is made up of EPA and DHA (8 percent is the goal for optimal heart benefits). Companies like the Omega-3 Index and OmegaQuant offer tests you can order online and administer at home, then mail in for results, though you may want to take a different route, according to Elizabeth Huggins, RD, at Hilton Head Health, a weight loss and wellness resort.
“The level of normal, at-risk, and low-risk levels for each omega-3 testing kit can vary from brand to brand,” says Huggins. “Additionally, the baseline of healthy omega-3 levels will vary due to additional factors like heart health and history.” And of course, the results can vary wildly if there’s a mistake in taking blood, for example. For these reasons, Huggins recommends working with a healthcare provider who is familiar with your medical history to determine your omega-3 levels, how to proceed once you get the results, and how often to get tested based on your previous test results and medical history. Look out for these 7 signs you’re not eating enough healthy fats.
Ask your doctor
Check with your healthcare provider whether a prescription for a test makes sense. If so, a lab will measure the healthy fats in your red blood cells while assessing your risk of heart disease and send the results back to your physician to review with you. Be warned, however: Although there’s a growing body of evidence that omega-3 testing may be as valuable as other standard markers for heart health like cholesterol, most insurance does not cover the cost of the test, which runs around $50.
How often do you need to be tested?
This sort of screening “provides the most accurate measurement of the omega-3 saturation in your body,” says Huggins, and “is the best way to determine if your intake is adequate.” But “adequate” can depend on other factors, too. The daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids an individual needs can vary depending on their current health, any absorption issues, and other risk factors for heart disease. That’s one reason Glassman recommends adding an omega-3 test to your usual blood workup at your annual physical and discussing the results with your healthcare provider. “If everything else is good, your cholesterol and blood pressure and triglyceride levels are fine, you may not need to worry so much,” she says. “Use it as a frame of reference to think about the bigger picture of your diet.” Check out these 7 foods rich in omega-3s for people who don’t like fish.
Because your body can’t make omega-3s, you have to get them from either food or supplements. Most experts recommend adding EPA- and DHA-rich foods to your diet before turning to supplements. According to a 2015 study, 95 percent of Americans don’t get enough of those two heart-healthy compounds, which are most commonly found in seafood. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna) at least twice a week (each serving should be 3.5 ounces cooked, or about ¾ cup of flaked fish). If you’re not a fish fan, Huggins says, tofu, spinach, beans, walnuts, wild rice, grass-fed beef and flaxseed and canola oils all contain smaller amounts of omega-3s.
Fortified foods, such as DHA-enriched milk, soy milk, orange juice, eggs, and bread, can also help bridge the gap, though they aren’t nutritionists’ first choice. If you’re really struggling to get enough heart-healthy fats in your diet, you can always pop a fish oil supplement. Because the supplement industry is largely unregulated and fish oil can interact with certain medications and increase the risk of bleeding in some people, you should consult your healthcare provider about whether to take one and how to choose among the many brands on the market. Next, don’t miss these surprising omega-3-rich foods that can add years to your life.