Harvard researchers have concluded that omega 3 deficiency causes up to 96,000 preventable deaths annually in the US.
In other words, it’s the the 6th leading cause, coming after the more talked about causes of smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high salt intake. (18)
You hear a lot about those killers, but not this one. Most people are unaware of the fact that this nutrient is actually rare in the Western diet and without enough, death can result.
What is the RDA for omega 3?
Before reviewing the opinions expressed by various governments and major organizations, it is important for you to understand:
- All data reproduced below is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. It should not be construed as being recommended daily intakes for yourself, your kids, or other people.
- You should not take any dietary supplements without first consulting your doctor. This is especially important when it comes to essential fatty acids like omega 3, since consumption can interfere with prescription medications, such as those for blood thinning, blood clotting, and blood pressure.
- Most governments have not established nutrient levels/RDA for omega 3, which includes the United States. Any information published about intake therefore is not the same as a Daily Value (DV). When it comes to fats, currently there are only Daily Values for “Total Fat” and “Saturated Fat” (1).
There are three primary types of omega 3; ALA, EPA, and DHA. The latter two are found in fish and seafood, while ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plants. Our body can convert ALA to the other two forms.
Some government agencies and organizations only provide a daily recommended amount or opinion on some forms, but not all forms. As you will see, most only address how much omega 3 you should be getting from food sources (i.e. dosage amount from eating fish and seafood).
Except for when DHA is separately called out, the EPA and DHA amounts listed below are for their combined total.
For example if “250 mg of EPA and DHA” is listed, it means the combined total for EPA + DHA = 250 mg. It does not mean 250 mg of EPA + 250 mg of DHA.
Most published opinions are only directed towards intakes for general health. Some are for cardiovascular health and pregnancy.
Occasionally, people ask how much omega 3 for weight loss, for athletes/bodybuilding, for depression, and other circumstances. To the best of our knowledge, no government body or major organization has issued any kind of intake recommendation or dosage whatsoever for those things.
Furthermore, we are not aware of any human validated research which conclusively links omega 3 fatty acids with losing weight or benefits for bodybuilders, endurance athletes, etc.
Most dietary guidance and opinions are published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), however the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will often weigh in on certain nutrient levels for specific diseases and health conditions.
The HHS will sometimes issue guidance which differs from USDA guidelines. While also an arm of the HHS, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deals with enforcement of regulations.
|USDA||General population||250 mg per day of EPA and DHA, coming from a consumption of about 8 ounces per week from a variety of seafood.||Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, 8th Edition (2)|
|HHS Office on Women’s Health||Pregnant & breastfeeding women||EPA and DHA amount not mentioned, but instructed to eat up to 12 ounces (about 2 servings) per week of cooked fish and shellfish with little or no mercury.||Fish Facts for Women Who Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding, 2011 (3)|
|Note: A suggestion or recommended amount per day for omega 3 from ALA sources is not provided by the U.S. government. Previously in 2005, some advice on ALA amounts was published, but it has since been removed. Presumably, this is due to their understanding that the modern American diet provides very little, and hence, advising an amount per day to consume may not be practical. While we may be wrong, that assumption is based on verbiage found in the above listed USDA source, which states that seafood provides “almost all of the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).”|
How much omega 3 supplements should I take?
You won’t get that answer from the U.S. government. A statement on this matter from the National Institute of Health (NIH) says “Moderate evidence has emerged about the health benefits of consuming seafood. The health benefits of omega-3 dietary supplements are unclear” (3).
Presently, the advice offered only applies to the general consumption of fish and in doing so, they mention how much EPA and DHA the servings of fish would be expected to contain. That is not the same as an omega 3 Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), Adequate Intake (AI) or Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL). Nutrient levels for ALA, EPA, and DHA have not been established by the FDA and therefore, an omega 3 RDA does not exist.
European Union (EU)
Headquartered in Parma, Italy, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for issuing guidance on food safety and nutritional advice for EU member states which are the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
|Demographic||Omega 3 Recommended Daily Intake||Source|
|EFSA||General adult population||250 mg per day of EPA and DHA||EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies (NDA); Scientific, Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol. EFSA Journal 2010 (4)|
|Pregnant and lactating women||250 mg per day of EPA and DHA, plus an additional 100 to 200 mg of DHA|
|Children 7 to 24 months||100 mg per day of DHA|
|Children 2 to 18 years||250 mg per day of EPA and DHA|
|Note: Recommended omega 3 intake for ALA is not listed. Since there are many member countries and European Economic Area (EEA) countries, the guidance issued is not necessarily the same as what the governments of some individual countries have advised their citizens.|
As a cabinet level ministry of the Japanese government, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare is responsible in setting standards for food and beverage, as well as regulating their limits of pesticide/herbicide residue, additives, and other chemicals.
Among all the governmental bodies and major organizations which publish recommendations on essential fatty acids, Japan by far has the most granular data. Unlike many others, how much omega 3 per day is not reported in terms of EPA and DHA amounts, but rather the umbrella category for all omega 3 intake combined (ALA + EPA + DHA).
Other sources of research [unrelated to Japan] have suggested that in healthy young males, about 8% of ALA is converted to EPA and 0-4% to DHA (5). In females, 21% of ALA converts to EPA and 9% to DHA (6). Due to low conversion rates in humans, it is important to realize that the values reflected below of total omega 3 intake for ALA + EPA + DHA would be substantially higher than already converted EPA + DHA amounts (which are not specified).
|Demographic||Total Omega 3 Per Day|
|0-5 months – boys and girls||900 mg
|6-11 months – boys and girls|
|1-2 years – boys and Girls|
|3-5 years – boys and Girls||1,200 mg
|6-7 years – boys||1,600 mg
|6-7 years – girls||1,300 mg
|8-9 years – boys||1,700 mg
|8-9 years – girls||1,500 mg|
|10-11 years – boys||1,800 mg
|10-11 years – girls||1,700 mg
|12-14 years – boys and girls||2,100 mg|
|15-17 years – boys||2,500 mg
|15-17 years – girls||2,100 mg
|18-29 years – men||≥2,100 mg
|18-29 years – women||>1,800 mg
|30-49 years – men||≥2,200 mg|
|30-49 years – women||>1,800 mg
|50-69 years – men||≥2,400 mg
|50-69 years – women||>2,100 mg
|Over 70 years – men||≥2,200 mg|
|Over 70 years – women||>1,800 mg|
|Pregnant women||1,900 mg|
|Nursing women||1,700 mg|
*AI = “Adequate Intake” and represents “a less well-defined value, generally the median of the population without evidence of deficiency”
**DG = “Tentative Dietary Goal for Preventing Lifestyle-related Diseases” and is a value unique to Japan. For the DG amounts “it is desirable to intake more than 1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA” (at least 1,000 mg EPA and DHA out of omega 3 daily intake).
|Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan (2010). Dietary Reference Intakes for Japanese. Daiichi Shuppan Publishing Co., Ltd. Tokyo, 2009. English summary (7), Japanese full report (8)|
To the best of our knowledge, Australia is the only country which issues specific guidance for military personnel that differs from the advice provided for the general public. Australian Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group) is Australia’s second largest governmental science organization. It provides support for the country’s branches of military and national security.
|Demographic||Daily Recommended Omega 3||Source|
|DST Group||Male soldiers||610 mg of EPA + DPA + DHA per day||Australian Defence Force Nutritional Requirements in the 21st Century (Version 1). Human Protection and Performance Division, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, 2009 (9)|
|Female soldiers||430 mg of EPA + DPA + DHA per day|
|Note: The report says “The suggested dietary target is equivalent to the 90th centile of intake in the Australian/New Zealand population to be attained by replacing energy-dense, low nutrient foods and drinks with LC n-3-rich foods such as fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel, lean beef or low energy density, LC n-3-enriched foods.” Australia is unique in that is addresses docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which is an omega-3 fatty acid that is structurally similar to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) with two more carbon chain units.|
World Health Organization (WHO)
Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Health Organization is an agency within the United Nations. It focuses on international public health affecting not just UN members, but the entire world population. With 193 member states in the United Nations, the RDA and nutritional advice provided by WHO strives to be relevant to the most diverse ranges of populations and economies throughout the world, and places special emphasis on those populations with undernourishment and where a balanced diet is difficult to obtain.
|Demographic||Omega 3 Daily Amount||Source|
|WHO||General population||200 to 500 mg per day of EPA and DHA, coming from regular fish consumption (1 to 2 servings per week)||Population nutrient intake goals for preventing diet-related chronic diseases, accessed June 2016 (10)|
|Vegetarians||ALA from adequate intake of plant sources|
|Note: No definition of the word “adequate” in the context of vegetarian diets is provided.|
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Headquartered in Quebec City, Canada, the FAO is another agency within the United Nations whose mission is specifically focused on leading international efforts to defeat hunger. The words fiat panis found in their logo represents the latin translation of “let there be bread.” As part of their mission of ensuring food security and nutrition, the FAO teaches agriculture, fishing, and other trades which can assist developing nations increase their production of food. Secondary objectives of the agency include sustainable management of natural resources, economic and social programs.
|Demographic||Omega 3 Daily Amount||Source|
|FAO||Adult males and adult females who are not pregnant/lactating||0.5% to 2% of calories from omega 3 comprising; 1 to 2% of calories from ALA, 250 mg to 2,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA.||Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2010). Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition: Report of an expert consultation. FAO, Food, and Nutrition Paper. Rome (11)|
|Pregnant/lactating females||300 mg per day of EPA and DHA, of which at least 200 mg should be DHA|
|Babies 0 to 6 months||0.10% to 0.18% of calories from DHA|
|Babies 6 to 24 months||10 to 12 mg per kg of body weight|
|Children 2 to 4 years||100 to 150 mg per day of EPA and DHA|
|Children 4 to 6 years||150 to 200 mg per day of EPA and DHA|
|Children 6 to 10 years||200 to 300 mg per day of EPA and DHA|
|Note: The above values only represent a selection of some omega 3 data dietary conclusions/opinions reported within the 189 page study. A fair amount of data in the report overlaps and differs, since various opinions are represented as to how much per day of omega 3 is best. All values reported are only labeled as having a “convincing” or “probable” level of evidence Not all data is consistent with the selected values reproduced here. It is encouraged to review the report.|
American Heart Association (AHA)
Among the major health and wellness non-profits in the United States, the American Heart Association would arguably be considered the most relevant to this topic given their size, their budget, and their focus; reducing death caused by heart disease and stroke. They are one of the few major bodies who have addressed a daily dose of omega 3 fatty acid intake from supplements, but only under the direction of a patient’s physician.
|Demographic||Daily Recommended Omega 3||Source|
|AHA||Healthy adults||Fish at least 2 times (2 servings) per week, particularly fatty fish. This would provide an estimated 250 to 300 mg per day average of DHA and EPA.||Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids, June 2015 (12)|
|Patients with documented CHD||1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA preferably from oily fish. Supplements could be considered in consultation with the physician.||AHA Scientific Statement: Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease, 2002 (13), AHA Scientific Statement: Triglycerides and Cardiovascular Disease, 2011 (14)|
|Patients needing triglyceride lowering||2,000 to 4,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA provided as capsules under a physician’s care.|
|Note: For the healthy adults recommendation, it is notated that each serving is 3.5 ounce cooked or about ¾ cup of flaked fish. Fatty fish examples listed are salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna which are high in omega 3 fatty acids, according to the AHA.|
International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL)
Established in 1991, the ISSFAL is an international scientific society with more than 500 members from over 40 countries. While not a large organization, their advice of how much EPA and DHA per day is particularly noteworthy being that ISSFAL’s sole focus is on the study of fats.
|Demographic||Daily Recommended Omega 3 Intake||Source|
|ISSFAL||Healthy Adults||0.7% of calories per day from ALA for a healthy intake||Recommendations For Intake of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids In Healthy Adults. July 2003 meeting of ISSFAL Executive Committee, revised June 2004 (15)|
|500 mg of EPA and DHA per day (minimum) for cardiovascular health|
|Note: The report claims “…an intake of about 500 mg of EPA+DHA per day would be expected to significantly reduce risk for death from CHD (Coronary Heart Disease) in healthy adults. This intake is both safe and achievable by diet alone, even for pregnant and lactating women for whom mercury intake can be an issue.”|
Why the need for EFAs?
Most of the fats that we as humans need to survive can be synthesized – meaning we can create them internally. However there are two we cannot… omega 3 and 6.
That’s why these are called essential fatty acids or EFAs. They are essential for life and we need to get them from dietary sources. In fact, when they were discovered nearly a century ago in 1923, they were named vitamin F due to their vital importance (16).
However since they are actually fats and not vitamins, their moniker was later changed to EFAs for a more accurate description.
If your foods aren’t providing enough, your doctor may advise for you to obtain an omega 3 daily dose from a dietary supplement or prescription (such as Lovaza, which is a very expensive EFA medication).
Omega 3 versus 6?
Is omega 3 more important than omega 6? Technically no, they are equally important. However the modern Western diet contains so much omega 6 that deficiency is virtually non-existent.
How much 6 are we eating? This should give you some perspective…
Scientific sources have suggested that during the hunter-gatherer days of humans, we were eating omega 3 and omega 6 in a roughly 1 to 1 ratio (17). Today, the modern diet is said to be around 16 to 1… meaning we are eating 16x more omega 6 than 3!
Why is omega 3 more difficult to obtain? Because it mostly comes from plants and fish which the average person eats very little of. Flax, chia seeds, walnuts, spinach, salmon, rainbow trout, and Artic char provide you with lots. Meanwhile those pizzas, burgers, fries, and Chipotle burritos provide almost none.
Furthermore, plants provide omega 3 in the form ALA, which needs to be converted to EPA and DHA. The efficiency of that conversion varies greatly and some people have a more difficult time obtaining it that way. Fish and seafood, given their mercury levels and other toxins, are also problematic for daily consumption. Ultimately, these factors have lead to the modern diet containing significantly lower amounts.