Omega-3s are popping up all over the supermarket. Stroll through the aisles, and you’ll find them added to spreads, eggs, bars, breads, and more. And what about fish? Rich in omega-3s, fish have long been considered dietary superstars, but concerns about toxins and mercury have left people confused about how much, and what type of fish, they should eat.
While many health-conscious consumers understand omega-3s are essential to good health and protect against disease, few know exactly what they are, what they do, and how to ensure adequate intake from food or supplements.
Without question, fat has a bad reputation. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many other maladies have been linked to diets high in fat. But not all fats are considered health enemies. Increasingly recognized as important to human health, the friendly fats are divided into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are further separated into omega-6 and omega-3 fats. They are termed “essential” because they cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be attained through one’s diet.
While eating a balance of the omegas is considered desirable, most Western diets are heavy on omega-6 (found in cereals, baked goods, chips, margarine, and more) and light on omega-3 (found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and others). Consequently, most people need to work on increasing the omega-3s in their diets, and there are more than a few reasons why consuming more omega-3s is a very good idea.
Hardly a day goes by without reports of another health benefit associated with omega-3 fats. Since their discovery in the 1970s, they have generated thousands of studies and scientific trials. One thing is absolutely certain: the omega-3 fats found in fish and fish oil (EPA and DHA) play a key role in heart health and maintenance. They stabilize irregular heartbeats and protect against fatal heart attacks. ALA (the omega-3 fat found in vegetable sources) may also lower the risk of cardiac disease, but it’s too early to say. More studies are needed to show a cause-and-effect relationship between ALA and heart disease.
But heart health isn’t the only reason to start beefing up your omega-3 intake. Research suggests omega-3s may also have significant anti-inflammatory properties, could help prevent some forms of cancer, and may reduce the severity of some psychiatric problems including depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The American Heart Association recommends around 1 gram of EPA plus DHA per day for people with heart disease, and suggests everyone else eat a variety of fish (especially fatty fish) at least twice a week. It also recommends ALA-rich foods, but doesn’t say exactly how much to aim for. The National Academy of Sciences, however, suggests at least 1.1 grams of ALA a day for women and 1.6 for men.
Fish is a fantastic all-around food source. Not only is it packed with the heart-healthy EPA and DHA omega-3 fats, it’s also packed with high-quality protein, low in saturated fat, and loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately, a slew of reports and warnings from government agencies and environmental groups over the past several years about mercury and other harmful chemicals found in fish have left consumers wondering if it’s time to toss in their fish fork. However, if you’ve cut back on eating fish because of fear of contamination, you have made a big mistake.
For most people, the risk of contamination from eating fish is just not a concern. According to five recent Harvard University studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, exaggerated fish fears could cause consumers to lower their fish consumption and lose the “substantial nutritional benefits” it provides.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid fish with high levels of mercury shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish and to limit any kind of fish to no more than two meals a week.
The rest of us should be making a conscious effort to incorporate more fish into our diets. The latest FDA advisory says that up to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week is safe for everyone. At 3 to 4 ounces per serving, the American Heart Association’s target of 2 servings of fish per week is well below the FDA’s safe limit.
The best sources of ALA include flaxseed and flaxseed oil. However, most of us get our ALA from soybean and canola oil, basically because we use so much more of them. ALA sources are also hiding in foods like salad dressings and mayonnaise.
Omega-3s can also be found in some interesting places in the supermarket. As the health reputation of omega-3s grows, food manufacturers have started to fortify everyday foods with them. Here are a few options:
- Designer Eggs: Omega-3 eggs are now widely available. Egg producers feed their hens flaxseed to produce eggs with enhanced amounts of ALA omega-3s. An Eggland’s Best egg, for example, has 100 mg of ALA three times the amount in an ordinary egg.
- Pumped up Pasta: Barilla Plus pasta boxes advertise their noodles to be “Rich in Heart Healthy Omega-3.” A 2 cup cooked serving (1/4 box) of Barilla Plus provides 360 mg of ALA from ground flaxseed.
- More in Margarine: A tablespoon of Smart Balance Omega Plus has 150 mg of added DHA/EPA and 400 mg of added ALA, and Promise Light supplies 250 mg of extra ALA.
- You’ll also find omega-3s added to breads (like Healthy Life Flaxseed), bars (like Odwalla GoMega), and more. When shopping for omega-3s, consider how much you’re getting (the recommended daily ALA intake is 1.6 grams (1600 mg) for men, and 1.1 grams (1100 mg) for women), and where you’re getting them from (check the ingredients list to see if the omega-3s come from flaxseed (ALA) or fish oil (EPA or DHA). Finally, keep in mind that although ALA can be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, the extent of this conversion is modest; so if you don’t eat fish, your best bet is to supplement with fish oil pills.
Should you Supplement?
If you don’t eat fish, you should take a fish oil pill that supplies 500 to 1000 mg of EPA and DHA combined. DHA supplements made from algae have around 100 mg per capsule, but at around $10 a bottle for 30 pills, they’re rather pricey.
Fish (6-oz. cooled) Total EPA and DHA Omega-3s (grams)
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed 3.7
Salmon, Atlantic, wild 3.1
Salmon, coho, farmed 2.2
Trout, rainbow, farmed 2.0
Salmon, coho, wild 1.8
Trout, rainbow, wild 1.7
Oysters (3 oz.) 1.1
Flounder or sole 0.9
Tuna, white, canned (3 oz.) 0.7
Tuna, fresh 0.5
Catfish, wild 0.4
Shrimp (3 oz.) 0.3
Tuna, light, canned (3 oz.) 0.2