The Many Splendors of Omega-3s

By Dayna Winter, M.S., R.D.

Omega-3 fatty acids continue to make big news in the world of health and nutrition, and it turns out their stellar reputation is well deserved. For instance, both population studies and clinical trials show that omega-3s help protect against heart disease. They have anti-inflammatory properties, help reduce cholesterol build up in your arteries, decrease blood pressure, and reduce triglyceride levels. Omega-3s have also been shown to both help prevent and improve symptoms of diabetes and arthritis, and to protect against cancer.

And that's not all. A population study conducted by Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that the Japanese (who consume lots of omega-3 fatty acids from fish) have the lowest risk of suffering from major depression when compared to other countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is essential to life while the others—eicosapentaeonic acid (EPA) and docosahexaeonic acid (DHA)—have health benefits, but you can live without them because ALA is converted to EPA and DHA in your body. EPA and DHA are what's commonly referred to as "fish oils," because these are the main omega-3s in fish.

Health experts have yet to come up with an official recommendation for the EPA and DHA, but about 1 g daily is a good number to aim for. The current recommendation for ALA is 1.6 g daily for women and 1.1 g for men. ALA is found in vegetable oils like soybean, canola and flaxseed oil, and in walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, purslane and eggs, especially those hatched from chickens fed a diet high in omega-3s.

Most Americans have no problem getting enough daily ALA. (Just 2 tablespoons of walnuts has about 1.1 grams and 1 tablespoon of canola oil has 1.3 grams.) It's the omega-3s EPA and DHA that many should be concerned with, according to Richard Deckelbaum, M.D., director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. He says current intake of EPA and DHA in the U.S. is one-third to one-sixth of what it should be. The most abundant food source of EPA and DHA is fish, especially fatty types like salmon, sardines, halibut, and herring. If you eat fatty fish twice a week, and include walnuts, canola oil, and/or flaxseed on a regular basis, you should cover your omega-3 needs.

Possible mercury contamination is an on-going concern with fish consumption, but the Food and Drug Administration's take is that most people do not need to be concerned — the benefits of eating fish and shellfish outweigh any potential harm — and most health experts continue to recommend two to three meals that include fish each week. The exceptions are pregnant women, nursing moms, and women who may become pregnant who should avoid fish with high mercury levels like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. However, they can eat up to 12 ounces a week of low mercury fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, and catfish.

Not a fish eater? Try some of these Best Life approved foods that are enriched with omega-3s: Barilla PLUS Pasta, Flatout Flatbread, Silk Plus Omega-3 DHA, Better'n Eggs Plus, Smart Balance Buttery Spread and Peanut Butter and Hellmann's Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise. Or, you can take a daily one-gram omega-3 supplement. Here's what to look for:

• Buy a product that is molecularly distilled to insure it is free of impurities, such as PCBs, dioxins, or mercury.
• Look for the words "pharmaceutical grade" on the label to further insure purity.
• Check for algae derived EPA and DHA if you are a vegetarian. (The label will tell you whether the EPA and DHA are fish or algae derived.)
• Choose a supplement that provides a 1:1 ratio of EPA to DHA, or one with slightly higher levels of EPA than DHA.

Take note that too much EPA or DHA can adversely affect your immune system and may not be safe for people who take blood thinners. Consult a health professional before deciding on a supplement.”