Fishing for Omega-3’s

You probably know that getting more omega-3 fatty acids is a good thing, but do you know the best ways to get them?  Do you know the difference between fish oil and flax seed oil?  Keep reading and you’ll be able to make good choices about this healthy fat.  We’ll start with the practical stuff and wind up with why it matters.

Fish:  Fish is the best food source of the most potent  form of omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA. The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association and American Dietetic Association all recommend a daily average of 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA. You can get this from 2 4-oz servings a week of fish.  Fatty fish have the most omega-3 fats: salmon, sardines, lake trout, herring, mackerel, and albacore tuna.  Keep in mind, however, that mackerel and albacore are among the fish that have the most mercury, so I recommend using chunk light tuna instead. 

You may have read about the concerns with the popular fish tilapia.  Farmed tilapia and catfish both have high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which are thought to increase inflammation.  The high levels of omega-6 fats found in tilapia and catfish come from the feed they are given, which is higher in carbohydrate and lower in protein then what fish naturally eat.  While there is controversy about whether this matters or not, I think it is wise to eat less farmed tilapia and catfish until we know more.

Fish Oil:  If you don’t eat much fish or you have any of the conditions associated with inflammation (more about this later), consider supplementing with fish oil.  Look for supplements that are primarily EPA and DHA.  Avoid products with omega-6 fats – we already get enough of these and probably too much.  If you use cod liver oil, be aware that it is high in vitamin A, which in combination with vitamin supplements could be excessive. 

In a recent study by Consumer Labs, all 50 products tested (ranging from high profile to generic brands) showed that all were fresh and contained their claimed amounts of EPA and DHA.  None were found to contain detectable levels of mercury.

If you decide to use a fish oil supplement, the most common dose is 500 – 1000 milligrams of EPA/DHA.  Higher doses are used for therapeutic effects, for example 2,000 -4,000 milligrams is used to lower triglyceride levels - but only use higher doses with your physician’s supervision.  Fish oil is not recommended for people with defibrillators, or who have chronic angina or congestive heart failure*, and high doses could increase bleeding for people on blood-thinners. 

Flax Seeds and Walnuts:  Flax seeds and walnuts contain omega-3 in its most basic form, alpha linolenic acid  (ALA).  It is considered essential because the body can’t make it – we have to get it from food or supplements.  When a product lists omega-3 without specifying the form, it is usually ALA.  Your body can make the more potent EPA and DHA forms from ALA, but it is an inefficient process:  you need to get 10 grams of ALA to make one gram of EPA or DHA. 

Even if you are getting fish or fish oil, it is still good to get some ALA too.  ALA is thought to have its own health benefits.  Aim for 2.2 grams per day: you get 2.8 grams in 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed, 7.5 grams in 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil and 2.3 grams in ¼ cup of walnuts.  Walnut and canola oils are also good sources. 

Flax seeds must be ground to be useful; we can’t digest whole seeds, although they are a good source of fiber.  Flax seeds can be easily ground with a coffee or spice grinder, and will keep in the refrigerator for a month.  Flax seeds are preferred over flaxseed oil because of the added benefits of lignans and fiber.  Flax seed oil goes rancid quickly and has less nutritional value for the calorie level.  If you use walnuts, try adding a handful to your breakfast cereal, salads, or vegetable stir-fry’s. 

Why they matter:   Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect.  This matters because systemic inflammation is considered a factor in many of today’s chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, GI diseases, autoimmune diseases, and more.  Even obesity is thought to be impacted by inflammation.

There is more research for omega-3 fats than any other supplement.  They are thought to improve blood circulation, reduce risk for heart attacks and stroke, improve depression and anxiety, decrease joint pain in rheumatoid arthritis, and have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.  In children they are an important part of brain development and thought to improve learning and behavioral problems.  Current research is exploring the role of omega-3’s in bipolar and other mental diseases, multiple sclerosis and bowel diseases.

Bottom Line:  If you are healthy, take the whole food approach and get your omega-3’s from fish: 2 4-oz servings per week.  If you would benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of additional omega-3’s you could either up your fish intake or try fish oil.  Plus add a little ground flax seed or walnuts for their ALA benefits. 

* Additional news:  Soon after writing and posting this article, I saw that a recent study indicates that fish oil might be better than the standard medications for treating congestive heart failure. Check with your physician to explore the options.

Kathy Nichols is the Healthy Habits Coach. Kathy blends her background as a registered dietitian with life coaching to help you create healthy and sustainable habits. Contact Kathy at 707 431-7524, or Blog: