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How omega-3 fatty acids boost heart health

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You can find these powerful nutrients in fish. Learn why adding them to your diet is good for your heart.

Here’s a great reason to start eating more fish: Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood such as salmon, tuna and striped bass can reduce your risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

There’s strong evidence that regular doses of omega-3 fatty acids can lower blood triglyceride levels. That’s a type of fat found in your blood, which your body uses for energy. But if you have too much of it, your heart disease risk goes up.

Omega-3 fatty acids can benefit your heart in other ways, too. Learn why you should fit these nutrient superstars into your diet — and when fish oil supplements may be a good option.

The power of omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids may improve heart health by reducing inflammation throughout your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Inflammation can damage blood vessels.

High triglycerides plus either high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol can lead to fatty buildups in your arteries. Any of these combos can make you more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. That’s why lowering your triglyceride levels is a key heart-health move.

But even if you don’t have heart disease, you can still benefit from including omega-3s in your diet.

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Which kinds of fish are best?

You can find omega-3s in certain fatty fish and seafood. But many plant-based oils, nuts, seeds and beans contain them, too, says Emma Laing. She’s a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The best way to ensure that you’re getting enough? Eat a 3-ounce serving of fatty fish twice a week. (Most seafood contains small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, but fatty fish has the most.) Good options include:

  • Salmon
  • Striped bass
  • Bluefin tuna
  • Black cod
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Lake trout

If you’re vegan (or just don’t like fish), it may be a little harder to get a lot of omega-3s. But there are good plant-based sources, too, notes Laing. Some ways to add them to your diet:

  • Cook with oils that contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed oil, walnut oil, canola oil or soybean oil.
  • Add hemp hearts or ground flaxseed to cereals, yogurts and salads.
  • Substitute flaxseed for part of the butter or oil when baking. Use 3 tablespoons of ground flaxseed mixed with 1 tablespoon of water to replace 1 tablespoon of oil.
  • Snack on edamame or walnuts.

Can fish oil supplements help, too?

It can sometimes be hard to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from food alone. So you might need to take a fish oil supplement. Research suggests that they can lower rates of heart disease. They can also reduce inflammation associated with other chronic diseases, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

There are 3 key omega-3 fats. EPA and DHA are found in fish and other seafood. ALA is found in plant foods such as flaxseed or canola oil. “The bulk of the research has looked at EPA and DHA,” says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD. She’s the medical director of Atria New York City.

A 2022 review study found that eating about 2 to 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids every day may help lower blood pressure. That was especially true in people whose blood pressure was high to begin with.

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Omega-3 supplements that contain these 2 ingredients may help people with heart disease. A 2019 study in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at 8,000 people who had high triglyceride levels. Those who took prescription omega-3 supplements had lower triglycerides and fewer heart attacks and strokes.

But if you don’t already have heart disease, there’s not enough evidence to show that a supplement will help you, says Dr. Goldberg. “You’re not going to get any more of a benefit than if you follow the guidelines of eating fatty fish twice a week.”

Making smart choices about supplements

If you have heart disease, ask your doctor about omega-3 supplements. The AHA recommends that you get about 1 gram of EPA plus DHA every day. If you have high triglycerides, you’ll benefit from an even higher amount: 2 to 4 grams of EPA plus DHA each day.

Clearing it with your doctor is key: If you take too much, an omega-3 supplement can upset your stomach. It can also raise the risk of bleeding — especially if you’re already on blood-thinning medications such as rivaroxaban (Xarelto®) or warfarin (Coumadin®).

Dr. Goldberg often prescribes a prescription-strength supplement such as Epanova®, Lovaza® or Vascepa® for her patients with high triglyceride levels. However, she says, “if you are considering omega-3 supplements, discuss it with your doctor before you start taking them.”

If you do try an over-the-counter product, look for one that contains the USP-verified mark. That means it has undergone independent testing to ensure that it contains the amount of ingredients listed on the label.

Remember, omega-3s are just one part of improving heart health, says Dr Goldberg. Exercising, eating right and staying at a healthy weight are just as important.

Additional sources
Heart benefits: American Heart Association (2021). “Fish and omega-3 fatty acids”
Triglycerides: Mayo Clinic (2022). “Omega-3 in fish: How eating fish helps your heart”
Inflammation and supplements: Cleveland Clinic (2019). “Omega-3 fatty acids”
Blood pressure: Journal of the American Heart Association (2022). “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids intake and blood pressure: A dose‐response meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials”
Supplements and triglycerides: The New England Journal of Medicine (2019). “Cardiovascular risk reduction with icosapent ethyl for hypertriglyceridemia”