The vast majority of doctors, naturopaths, nutritionists, and scientists agree that having more omega-3 fats in our diet is good for our health.

There are three main fats in omega-3 – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – and we can find them in many different foods.

We can get a lot of ALA by eating ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, for example, while oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring are high in EPA and DHA.

These fats are also all available in over-the-counter diet supplements. Flaxseed supplements are high in ALA; Fish, krill and algae supplements contain a lot of EPA and DHA.

Despite their availability, evidence shows that most people in North America don’t get enough of these important fats in their diet. Low levels in our diet mean low levels in our body. This can be linked to a higher risk of a number of health complications such as coronary heart disease and depression.

I find this separation fascinating. Nutrigenomics researcher Kaitlin Roke and I set out to create a new online survey – to examine what young adults know about omega-3 fats and their relationship to various health outcomes.

What do young adults know?

The development of this survey was important for several reasons. First, it has been a long time since a survey was conducted about omega-3 fats in food. Second, the boom in social media means people are now getting nutritional information from many different sources in addition to health professionals. Third, many nutrition surveys are conducted among older adults.

Only one in five young adults surveyed said they had taken omega-3 supplements.
(Shutterstock)

However, eating habits established as a young adult are highly likely to be maintained throughout a person’s life. That’s why we conducted our research with more than 800 young adult participants in the Guelph community.

The results showed that young adults are very aware of the various omega-3 fats and their associated health benefits.

One of the most important realizations is that it depends on how people name the different omega-3 fatty acids. On the one hand, young adults were more familiar with the term alpha-linolenic acid than with the acronym ALA. On the other hand, the same people recognized the acronyms EPA and DHA more than their scientific names.

This information is important for health professionals and companies that sell nutritional supplements, as conversations about each omega-3 fatty acid in different ways can improve the absorption of nutritional information.

Heart and brain health

Another key finding from this survey was that four out of five young adults recognized omega-3s as linked to heart, metabolic, and brain health.

But here’s the kicker: while most young adults seem aware of the health benefits of omega-3 fats, only 40 percent (two in five) said they bought or consumed omega-3 foods. Only 21 percent (one in five) said they took omega-3 supplements.

This study highlights the discrepancy that exists between awareness of the health benefits of omega-3 and consumption of omega-3 fats. Now is the time to find new ways to increase your intake of these important dietary fats.

I’m very interested in the new and exciting field of personalized nutrition. The idea behind this is that people who have access to their genetic information, especially those related to nutritional metabolism, can change their eating habits.

In particular, nutrigenomics research is investigating whether providing personal genetic information related to omega-3 lipid metabolism can promote consumption of these fats.

Social media solutions

Another tool that could be used more often by health professionals is social media.

Our survey found that many young adults use social media as a source of nutritional information. We just need to make sure that the content on social media is accurate and based on science.

What is clear is that there is no solution to increasing omega-3 levels in the general Canadian population. We will no doubt have to tailor nutritional advice differently for different people.

The good news, however, is that young adults seem to know a lot about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get them to eat more of them.

Would you like to know if your diet is getting enough omega-3 fats? Take a free quiz online.

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