Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid (PUFA) found throughout the body. It is a major structural fat found in the brain and eye accounting for up to 97% of the total omega-3 fats in the brain and up to 93% of the omega-3 fats in a specific part of the eye, called the retina. It is also a key component of the heart. Numerous research studies confirm that everyone, from infants to adults to the elderly, can benefit from a regular intake of dietary DHA.
It is often said that Americans consume too much fat, but in the US and other parts of the world, many people don't eat enough good fat. While consuming a diet high in saturated and trans fats has been shown to raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels and increase the risk of coronary heart disease, foods high in PUFAs, specifically omega-3 fats, are important for good health. When attempting to avoid the “bad fats” it is important to not cut out the ”good” fats as well. So, how can you tell which fats are good and which fats are bad?
Both the American Heart Association and the USDA Dietary Guidelines have recognized the association between consuming both PUFAs, but especially omega-3 fats, to optimize heart health.
Today, more and more food products claim to be a good source of omega-3s, but not all omega-3s are created equal. There are three major omega-3 fatty acids each with distinct health benefits:
DHA, a long chain omega-3 fatty acid, is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain and eye. It is also an important structural component of heart tissue and is naturally found in breastmilk.
EPA, a long chain omega-3 fatty acid, is important for human health. While EPA is not stored in significant levels in the brain and eye, it plays a very important role in the body, especially for heart health.
ALA, an essential fatty acid (EFA), is a shorter-chain omega-3 fatty acid that serves as a source of energy for the body. It can also convert to EPA and DHA, but in very limited amounts. ALA has been found to be beneficial for heart health.
On average, the typical American diet contains less than 100mg of DHA per day, well below the amount recommended by several expert organizations around the world. Fortunately, as research continues to demonstrate the importance of DHA, foods fortified with DHA are becoming increasingly available making it easier to include in your daily diet.
How much DHA do you consume? How much DHA should you consume?
Several expert bodies around the world have made recommendations for DHA intake among various populations.
Flaxseed oil is a source of alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, a precursor of DHA. ALA is an important source of energy, however there are no known specific benefits of ALA on brain or eye development and function. While the human body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, it occurs at a rate of less than 1%, so it is best to consume preformed DHA directly for the health benefits.
1 FAO, 2010.
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