Omega-3s: Counting the Ways to Obtain These Essential Fats
These days, no matter where you turn, it's hard to miss health experts' advice to consume more omega-3 fatty acids. This is because omega-3s are part of the "good fats" we need in order to be healthy. And yet, our bodies aren't designed to produce the essential fatty acid (called alpha linoleic acid) on their own. We must rely on a dietary supply.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet lacks omega-3s. "We tend to have a really, really high level of omega-6s and low levels of omega-3s in our diet," says Debra Boutin, MS, RD, a nutrition faculty member at Bastyr University. "This can impact inflammation and contribute to a number of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and cardiac problems." Omega-6s are primarily found in plant oils, which are often included in salad dressings, mayonnaise and a large number of processed foods. Essential omega-3s are found in coldwater fatty fish, flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements.
As with most nutrients, it's good to remember the rule of moderation. Consuming too little of the essential omega-3 fatty acids can negatively impact immune function, mental health, cell membrane strength, and even vision. But overconsuming can result in thinned blood that cannot clot properly. And eating excessive amounts of fish may result in exposure to higher levels of contaminants including methylmercury and dioxins (PCBs).
So, as with most things, balance is key. The following summary provides several ways to find the right balance.
OPTION 1: FATTY FISH
Some of the best fish sources of omega-3s, according to Boutin, are cold water fatty fish including salmon, rainbow trout, anchovies, sardines, bass and tuna. She recommends eating two 3-ounce servings per week (a 3-ounce serving is about the size of a deck of cards) and to eat wild fish. Farmed fish, such as salmon, may be fed contaminated feed. Wild fish may have a small amount of contaminants, but pose a much lower level of risk. When you eat fish, you also consume many other important nutrients.
OPTION 2: FISH OIL SUPPLEMENTS
If you're not a big fish fan, a high-quality supplement - either capsules or liquid - is your best bet. The recommended dose of fish oil is 1-3 grams of fish oil per day. "Typically, heavy metal contaminants are in the fish flesh and not as concentrated in the oils," says Boutin. Fish supplements of omega-3 include fish oils, mixed fish oils and cod liver oil. Cod liver oil often has higher concentrations of the fatty acid than other fish oils.
OPTION 3: FLAX & WALNUTS
Additional dietary sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts and walnut oil. Canola and soybean oil also contain a modest amount of omega-3s. "The oil is the most concentrated form," says Boutin, and seeds must be ground - not whole - in order to access the oils. Boutin recommends using flaxseed oil in a salad dressing or including it in smoothies. The ground seeds can be sprinkled on cereal or yogurt.
The downside of flaxseed is that although it is often used as a vegetarian source of omega-3, the form of oil in the flaxseed must be converted by the body to become the essential omega-3, and not everyone has the enzyme needed to successfully make this conversion.
If you would like to make sure you are getting enough fatty acids in your diet and find the best sources for you, make an appointment with Bastyr's nutrition or naturopathic medicine practitioners by calling 206.834.4100.
Author: Sydney Maupin, staff writer
Date: May 2007
Sources: Debra Boutin, MS, RD; PCCNaturalMarkets.com