Catch of the Day:  A Healthier Heart

It’s the definition of non-controversial:  omega-3 fatty acids are great for you.  These beneficial fats, primarily found in oily fish, are critical for brain and nervous system development and can reduce systemic inflammation: the kind that can lead to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.  So, the benefits are inarguable; the argument is in the fine print: how much is enough?  Which of the supplements are best?  Do you really need a supplement?  Are omega-3 supplements contra-indicated for some people? 

There is no established RDI (Recommended Dietary Intake) for omega-3’s, but to reap the maximum benefits, you should aim for up to 1,000 milligrams of a combination of two kinds of these fats per day.  The two kinds—long-chain fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—are both derived mainly from fatty fish, fish oil and algae.  Nutrition experts tend to downplay the heart-health benefits of a third, a plant-based form of omega-3: a short-chain fatty acid named alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  That’s because your body is adept at absorbing EPA and DHA but is much less efficient at utilizing ALA, which has to be converted into a long-chain fatty acid.  In other words, if you want to boost your omega-3’s, think salmon, not ground flaxseed.

The American diet is awash in another set of fats, the omega-6’s, which come from meat, eggs and especially the corn, soybean and other vegetable oils prevalent in processed foods.  Their sheer abundance in the food supply guarantees you’ll consume much more of the 6’s than the 3’s, and that’s a problem.  Both omegas need the same enzymes to break them down into forms the body can use and store in cells.  The catch is that those enzymes are in limited supply.  So when the omega-6’s dominate the diet, they use up the enzymes and fewer omega-3 fats wind up available.  Imbalances become greater over the years.  Fifty years ago, our diets were 2:1, omega-6’s to omega-3’s.  Now the typical ratio is greater than 10:1.  We need to shift the balance: increase our intake of omega-3’s and reduce our intake of omega-6’s.

You can get enough omega-3’s from diet alone, but only if you’re a fan of the right kinds of fish.  Eating oily fish 4-5 times per week is probably good enough, but few Americans actually do that.  Hence the need for supplements.  But how do you choose?

There are a myriad of choices in pharmacies and vitamin stores.  Some capsules are made from fish oil, others are made from algae.  Some supplements contain both EPA and DHA; others do not.  Fish oil capsules are the best-researched of the omega-3 supplements.  They have been shown to lower the risk of health attack, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.  Studies suggest that fish oil pills may also improve symptoms of arthritis, asthma and allergy, protect against age-related loss of brainpower and prevent wrinkling of the skin. 

Fish oil pills have clear benefits; however if you’re a vegetarian or are allergic to fish oil, you may prefer to take supplements made from algae, the small organisms that are normally eaten by marine life and passed up the food chain.  Although algae oil hasn’t been studied to the same extent that fish oil has, it does have an environmental advantage over the fish population.  Research shows that fish populations are declining.  Growing algae may be more sustainable. 

Any omega-3 supplement you purchase needs to contain both EPA and DHA with a combined amount of at least 650 milligrams.  Most studies have found that a 60-40 split between EPA and DHA is the most effective.  But the ratio doesn’t matter nearly as much as getting both omega-3’s.

Fish oil capsules can sometimes cause gas, bloating and fish oil burps.  You can reduce these symptoms by purchasing an enteric-coated supplement and storing it in the refrigerator.  Enteric-coated capsules dissolve after they have passed through the stomach, releasing the contents farther down the digestive tract.  Also, try to take them with a meal early in the day. 

For some individuals with certain genetic markers, fish oil may be contra-indicated.  If you have had genetic testing, check with your physician to determine if your genetic markers show that fish-oil supplementation may be contra-indicated.

Finally, there are concerns that contaminants like mercury or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have accumulated in fish and thus fish oil.  Most researchers believe these fears have been overblown.  More than 90% of the PCBs in the U.S. food supply come from non-seafood sources like meat, dairy products, eggs and vegetables.  It would be tragic if some people missed the benefits because of the potential low risk of toxins.  To be on the safe side, many manufacturers distill fish oil before bottling it to remove any traces of mercury or other contaminants (look for purified, distilled or metal free on the label).  A recent Consumer Reports study concluded the fish oil brands tested were clear of pollutants.  In conclusion, these supplements may be an incredibly simple way to protect you from heart disease.  For more information, check with your physician or dietitian.

Source: Beth Howard