Omega-3 Fatty Acids Explained

Why do you need Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

If you avoid fast food like the plague, eat at least 5 fruits/vegetables daily, consume high fiber foods, eat lean proteins and whole wheatbreads & pastas; that’s terrific! But, unless your diet also contains at least 2 servings of fish weekly, you are missing out on an essential fatty acid. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, so we must provide via our diet and the foremost source is via fatty fish.

So, you ask “how much is enough”? It’s not so much the amount, but the balance of omega-3’s and omega-6’s. The typical American diet contains 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Ideally, the ratio should be 1:1 (omega-3’s: omega-6’s). Omega-6’s are all too common in our diet and are found in the following oils: soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed. Omega-6’s tend to promote inflammation, while omega-3’s help reduce inflammation. To help improve the ratio, try using olive oil, flaxseed or walnut oil instead. More importantly, a daily source of an Omega-3 fatty acid is ideal, i.e. fatty fish.

For you science nerds: Omega-3 Fatty Acids are composed of long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acids (ALA). Newsflash!! Your mother may have always said that “fish is good for the brain” and you may hate to admit it, but she was right! Eating more Omega-3’s may help prevent or minimize depression, aggression, heart disease, liver damage, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancer and memory loss due to aging, just to name a few. Omega-3’s act as an anti-inflammatory throughout the body, who doesn’t need that? I especially need it after driving 5 hours in the car on a windy road with 4 kids (ok, one is my husband) and a rambunctious dog.

If you are like most people, you may not be thrilled to eat fish more than once a week, but there are other sources of Omega-3’s! Be forewarned though, foods that contain just ALA’s are only 10% as effective as EPA and DHA. This is because the body must convert the ALA’s to EPA and DHA, and during the conversion process, the potency is lost. These foods are still great to eat, but if you want maximum benefit from Omega-3’s, go for the EPA’s and DHA’s found in fatty fish.

Foods containing ALA’s include: flaxseed meal, walnuts, canola oil, spinach, collard greens, kale and most foods which have been supplemented with Omega-3’s (i.e. peanut butter, juice, margarine, milk, eggs). FYI In the early 1970’s, scientists discovered that Inuit people ate tons of fat, but had extremely low rates of heart disease. A few years later, Japanese researchers noted that Japan’s rate of death related to heart disease was half that of Western countries. What do both the Inuit and Japanese have in common? They both eat large amounts of fatty fish. Was the last time you tried fatty fish? Perhaps at your grandparents house and maybe it was cold, pickled herring or a lovely can of sardines? Bleck! Can’t say I blame you for disliking fish, but there are many more options! Say……grilled salmon, kippered snacks, oysters, scallops, rainbow trout, several varieties of sea algae (no, you don’t eat it raw silly, put it in your soup or sushi!). Use techniques such as broiling, baking, stir-frying and sautéing. Avoid fried fish or highly processed fish such as fish sticks, the Omega-3’s benefits are partially destroyed in these foods. I love pan sautéed oysters and big sea scallops cooked in broth and garlic! If you go for salmon, look for “wild” vs. farmed, unless you know that the farmed salmon were fed omega-3’s.
*If you are scared of mercury in fish and seafood, the foods I’ve listed above are safe to eat 2-3 times/week and rate low-nil in mercury.

Are you totally opposed to fish or seafood of any kind? Well, lucky for you that many effective supplements are now available. I recommend taking them at night or shortly after dinner to prevent a case of the “fish burps” all day long. Yes, I know,disgusting, but the benefits far outweigh the burps. Here are some guidelines to follow:
· Do not take more than 3 grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules without the supervision of a health care provider, due to an increased risk of bleeding.

· For healthy adults with no history of heart disease: The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least 2 times per week.

· For adults with heart disease: The American Heart Association recommends an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (as fish oils) providing 1 gram daily of EPA and DHA. Give it 2 - 3 weeks before the benefits kick in.

· For adults with high cholesterol levels: The American Heart Association recommends an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (as fish oils) providing 2 - 4 grams daily of EPA and DHA. Again, it may take 2 - 3 weeks for benefits of fish oil supplements to be seen.

Be wary of the confusing labels! Dosing for fish oil supplements should be based on the amount of EPA and DHA, not on the total amount of fish oil. Supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA. A common amount of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil capsules is 0.18 grams (180 mg) of EPA and 0.12 grams (120 mg) of DHA. Five grams of fish oil contains approximately 0.17 - 0.56 grams (170 -560 mg) of EPA and 0.072 - 0.31 grams (72 - 310 mg) of DHA. Different types of fish contain variable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and different types of nuts or oil contain variable amounts of ALA. Fish oils contain approximately 9 calories per gram of oil.

Important! Only buy fish oil from a reputable source that has tested their products for mercury or pesticide residues. Costco, Coromega and Iceland Health (found at Walgreen’s) are all reputable brands.

If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use omega-3 fatty acid supplements:
Blood-thinning medications
Diabetes medications
Etretinate and topical steroids
Cholesterol-lowering medications
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)

Copyright Linda Kees R.D. L.D.