Omega 3 Fatty Acids have been in the limelight for some time now due to their heart-healthy benefits. Many have decided to eat more fish or take fish oil pills. Others see the value in eating walnuts and flaxseed. Isn’t there a difference between these sources? Doesn’t the mercury in fish cancel out its benefits? What is the best way to get this healthy fat?
Hi and welcome to nutritionally speaking. I’m your host Michaela Ballmann. Today we are going to be talking about omega 3 fatty acids, a very popular topic these days and one of the most popular supplements. What are the health claims of omega 3’s and what is the best source of this healthy fat?
Omega 3’s are a type of essential fatty acid that is now famous for being heart-healthy. The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times a week, which translates into eating a 3.5 ounce serving of salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines or other fatty fish at least twice a week. Some are deterred by the term fatty fish and would rather eat something lean, but omega 3’s are a type of fat, so to get the benefits from them, you need to eat a food high in this type of fat. Don’t worry, it’s a good fat!
SO what makes it a good fat? Omega threes have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels while increasing HDL levels; decrease already high blood pressure; prevent blood clots, and decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimers. It may also aid with depression, arthritis and skin problems. No wonder it is so popular!
It is important to note that not all omega threes are created equal. There are three main forms of omega 3’s—ALA (alpha linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentanoic acid), and DHA (docosahexanoic acid). ALA is found primarily in walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil, all vegetarian sources. EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are mainly found in fish and fish oil. So what’s the difference? The most powerful beneficial effects of omega 3’s are from EPA and DHA, leading people to believe that they are the only good type of omega 3. ALA can be converted into the longer-chain EPA and DHA but the conversion is inefficient. There are ways to increase the efficiency, however. One of the main problems of the western diet is the type of fat used. Though omega-6 fatty acids also have health benefits, we consume too much of them. Omega 6’s are found in corn, safflower, and sunflower oil, nuts and seeds other than walnuts, eggs and meat. The average western diet has a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 10:1 or even up to 20:1. The ratio needs to be reduced to about 3:1 by decreasing the amount of omega 6 and increasing the amount of omega 3 in the diet. This is important because such a high ratio can promote inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a poor conversion of ALA to EPA/DHA. Reducing the ratio can help protect against these diseases and can help vegetarians and others who choose to get their omega 3’s from a non-marine source be better able to convert to the more potent type of omega-3 within their body. Just an FYI, an ounce of walnuts (or about 14 halves) contains 2.5 grams of omega 3’s.
Another issue that people have with fish is the mercury. Mercury levels are lowest in salmon at .01 parts per million, halibut checks in at .26, and mackerel reaches up to .73. If the American Heart Association guidelines are followed, the mercury content should not be large enough to worry about, but if large amounts of high mercury-containing fish is eaten daily, I would be more concerned about the type of fish and the frequency of its consumption.
In fact, do you know how fish are such a great source of omega 3’s? It’s because they eat microalgae. Microalgae is the primary original source of EPA/DHA. So, another great vegetarian option is microalgae pills.
Before I close, I want to promote the whole food approach to omega 3’s. If you eat fish, it is better to eat the actual fish than take the fish oil pill for several reasons. First, the omega 3’s tend to be absorbed better and you are getting many other nutrients from the fish that may have a synergistic effect—a more beneficial effect than if you took the pill by itself. Also, the supplement industry is unregulated. The claims and ingredients on the label are not necessarily what they say they are, which also calls into question the safety of the pill form. By eating the fish, there also is little to no risk of overdosing on the pills, which yes is a bad thing.
For vegetarians, reducing the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 and choosing walnuts, GROUND flaxseed and canola oil or microalgae pills (that have been tested in research studies) are great ways to get omega 3’s.
Here’s wishing you all healthy hearts!
If you have any comments or questions feel free to go to my website or email me. Thanks for listening and see you next time!