YOUR GUIDE TO OMEGA-3s

 

 

New research on omega-3 fatty acids continues to make headlines, often highlighting the good-for-you qualities of these fats.  But what exactly are omega-3s, which foods are rich in them, how much should we eat, and what’s the best way to meet that quota?
Omega-3 fats are the structural material of virtually every cell in our bodies.  There are three main types of omega-3 fats: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  These are also known as polyunsaturated or one type of healthy fats.  They are perhaps best known for their heart-health benefits.  The science is particularly strong in the roles two of them: DHA and EPA play in heart health.  But research suggests all three types of omega-3s offer much more beyond that, from brain health to eye, skin, and hair health.  And inadequate omega-3 intake might shorten your life span and could be more dangerous that consuming trans-fat (partially hydrogenated oils). 
Omega-3s are essential fats, meaning our bodies can’t make then and so we must get them from our diet.  The recommended daily dose for omega-3s (really DHA and EPA) has a wide range depending on the individual: from 250-1,000 mg per day for the general population.  This translates into 2 (3-5 ounce) seafood servings every week.  But only 1 of every 10 consumers actually meets this target.  Plus, the standard American diet (SAD) includes far less omega-3s than what’s considered optimal. 
There are supplement options, but most people really want to meet their needs with food.  Switching to omega-3-forified foods, flax, eggs and walnuts are delicious ways to increase your intake.  Cold water fish (salmon, tuna) contain the highest concentrations, but there are other ways to meet your needs.
With more than 27,000 published studies on omega-3s, they’re one of the most researched nutrients.  Early data suggest a correlation between omega-3s and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.  The strongest data are still with heart health and triglyceride management, which also benefits your heart.   Omega-3s have also been shown to help change the ratio of LDL/HDL (bad/good) cholesterol, lowering LDL/total cholesterol and raising HDL.  Omega-3s might also lower blood pressure, slow the growth of plaque in your arteries, and even decrease abnormal heart rhythms. 
It’s not just your heart that benefits from a healthy dose of omega-3s.  Research on cognitive decline appears promising (those with brain disease typically do have lower levels of omega-3s).  The premise of this research is that omega-3s are important fats within the brain, with unsaturated fats making up about a quarter of total brain fat, nearly all o9f which are from DHA.  That said, the research isn’t clear yet if adding more omega-3s to one’s diet can slow or prevent cognitive disease progression.  Data also suggest that these oils may play a role in eye health, because, like our brain, most of the lipids in our eyes are DHA.
Some studies suggest that omega-3s in supplement form might not be the ‘magic bullet’ that we’d hoped.  The key is to consider all the data.  Although some studies have not shown promise, others clearly do.  And generally, getting omega-3s from food appears to be a safe bet.  In countries where seafood is aplenty, data show residents have some of the highest omega-3 levels and the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease. 
Still, Americans aren’t eating enough oily fish: our median intake is about 0.15 ounces per day!  So, for some, adding a supplement to your regimen might be worth discussing with your doctor.  And get your blood levels or omega-3s tested next time you have lab work.  Worth knowing where you stand so you know what you need to do!
 
Four Types of Seafood to Eat More Often
Salmon:  Atlantic, chinook, and coho deliver more omega-3s that others.
Oysters:  Packed with omega-3s and low in mercury, oysters are extremely versatile.  Four ounces equals 4-8 oysters, depending on size.
Trout:  incredibly easy to fine and quick to cook, most trout is also farm-raised in an eco-friendly way in the U.S.
Sardines and Anchovies:  If eating 4 ounces of these itty bitties seems like a lot, even adding a few anchovies to a dressing or sauce or topping crackers with flaked sardines can up you count, as they’re also omega-rich.

 
What You Need to Know About Mercury
Up your seafood intake, and you’ll get more good-for-you omega3s as well as other key nutrients such as selenium, B6 and B12, and iron.  You could also increase your mercury exposure, but how worried do you need to be?
Some of the moega-3-rich fish toward which we gravitate (mackerel, swordfish, most tuna) are also a source of mercury, mostly in the form of methylmercury.  Too much methylmercury in your body can hinder neurodevelopment (in unborn and young children); cause numbness and tingling in your mouth, hands, and feet; make it difficult for you to think clearly; and even cause you to lose your hair.  It’s scary, yes, but don’t banish seafood from your plate.  If you follow the USDA guidelines and eat at least 8 ounces of seafoods a week, making some of your choices lower-mercury fish (shrimp, trout) you should be fine.  Also, farmed fish generally have less mercury than their wild counterparts.  Want to be more cautious?  Use the Environmental Working Group’s Seafood Calculator for a custom dietary recommendation based on your age, height, weight and gender.  Generally, though, research is fairly conclusive that the benefits of eating more seafood outweigh the risks.  Plus, ocean fish and shellfish are full of the mineral selenium (17 of the top 25 selenium-rich foods are seafood), which binds to mercury, reducing or negating its negative effects.
 
Easy Ways to Up Your Omega-3s
Flax4Life Muffins, Oatmega Cookies, Susie’s Smart Cookies, flaxseed (ground and refrigerated after opening), Omega-3 fortified milk and eggs, Simply Essentials, grass-fed dairy.
 
Brierley Horton, MS, RD and Chris Mohr, PhD, RD