Omega-3 fatty acid: The importance of fat in a healthy diet

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Rachael Neumann

National Policy Officer - Food Supply

Omega-3 fatty acid can often be one of those health buzz words you hear from time to time, but it actually has a vital role to play in maintaining heart heath and shouldn’t be ignored. With fish being one of the world’s best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, let’s take a look at why the Heart Foundation recommends 2–3 serves of fish per week and why it is a must have on your grocery list today.

What is omega-3 fatty acids and what food sources can you get it from?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat.

Poly-what? In simple terms, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are the healthy fats that when eaten in replace of saturated fats (most commonly found in processed and packaged foods) can have a range of positive health benefits such as reduced cholesterol and heart disease risk.

Our bodies can’t produce omega-3 fatty acid for itself, which means we must rely on our diet to ensure we get enough. Omega-3 fatty acids come from marine, animal, and plant sources. While plant-sourced omega-3 fatty acids are similar to those sourced from marine animals, they are slightly different, so it is important that both types are included as part of your overall healthy diet.

  • Marine-sourced omega-3s (Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) are omega-3 fatty acids that are found primarily in oily fish, such as salmon, blue-eye trevalla, blue mackerel, herring, canned sardines, canned salmon and some varieties of canned tuna. Other fish such as barramundi, bream or flathead, and seafood such as arrow squid, scallops, and mussels, are also good sources of omega-3.
  • Plant-sourced omega-3s Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is derived from plants and is found mainly in plant-based fats and oils, such as canola oil and soybean oil, and linseeds (flaxseeds), chia seeds, and walnuts.

To find out more about sources of omega-3 refer to the Heart Foundation resource Sources of omega-3 (PDF).

Visit the recipe section for tips on how to include fish and seafood in your diet today.

What does the Heart Foundation recommend for omega-3 fatty acids and heart health?

Meeting your recommended weekly intake of omega-3 fatty acid (250–500 mg/day of marine-sourced omega-3s, EPA, DHA) is easy! The Heart Foundation recommends all Australians aim to eat 2–3 serves of fish, including oily fish, per week. In addition, the Heart Foundation also recommends Australians eat one gram per day of plant-sourced omega-3 (ALA).

Marine-sourced and plant-sourced omega-3s should be included as part of a heart-healthy diet that includes vegetables and legumes, fruit, wholegrain cereals, lean meats and their alternatives, nuts and seeds, reduced fat milk, cheese and yoghurt, healthier fats and oils, and limits salt.

The Heart Foundation has a range of simple, delicious, and most importantly healthy recipes that can help you meet the recommended weekly intake of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.

What about omega-3 supplements?

Ideally, you will get enough omega-3 fatty acid in your diet from eating 2–3 serves of fish per week and won’t need to rely on omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

However, some people who are at high risk of heart disease or living with heart disease may benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Also, if you choose not to eat fish or seafood, supplements can also be a good option to ensure you get enough marine-sourced omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA) in your diet.

Should I be concerned about mercury levels in fish?

The evidence is clear, the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh any risks. The Heart Foundation recommends fish and seafood that has safe mercury levels and align with advice from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

FSANZ recommends 2–3 serves per week of any fish, EXCEPT the following, which should be eaten infrequently:

  • 1 serve per week of orange roughy (deep sea perch) or catfish and no other fish that week
  • 1 serve per fortnight of shark (flake) or billfish (swordfish/broadbill or marlin), and no other fish that fortnight.

Be mindful that flake is commonly served at takeaway seafood restaurants and this species is a high risk for methylmercury contamination. When eating away from home, be sure to ask about the species of fish and choose one of our recommended fish and seafood species (PDF).