Despite what you hear from some nutrition “gurus”, essential fats are super important to our bodies, they help build cell walls and keep the brain healthy, which may explain why you’re seeing labels claiming “enriched with omega-3 fatty acids” on cereal boxes and egg cartons on store shelves. The body does not make these fats; we must get them from the foods we eat. There is omega 3 in fish, though concerns over contamination have been much in the news.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in the fatty layers of cold water species of fish (halibut, salmon, sardines, trout and tuna) and shellfish as well as plant and nut oils, English walnuts, flaxseed, algae oils and a growing variety of fortified foods.
You can also get this fatty acid in supplement form, though many experts are proponents of getting nutrients where they are found naturally. There are many studies that suggest omega-3s offer benefits to diseases like cancer, asthma, depression, heart disease, ADHD and autoimmune diseases.
Research into omega-3 finds that they may benefit many conditions, including…
- Alzheimer’s disease: A Rush Institute for Healthy Aging study analyzed fish eating patterns of over 800 subjects (aged 65 to 94) and found those eating fish at least once a week were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t eat fish.
- Cancer: A study of 2,300 Swedish men found that those who ate salmon, herring or mackerel had a much lower risk of prostate cancer than those who didn’t eat fish. Five or more servings a week brought a 64% reduced risk of this form of cancer.
- Healthier arteries: A study in Finland and the U.S. following postmenopausal women found that those who ate two or more servings of fish each week had healthier arteries than those who ate less than two servings. The benefits were even greater for those eating tuna or another kind of dark fish at least once during the week.
What all these diseases have in common is inflammation according to Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine. In large enough amounts, omega-3s reduce the inflammatory process that leads to many chronic conditions. This is why so many experts recommend eating two 8-ounce servings of fish a week.
Omega-6, the other, perhaps lesser known, fatty acid is in almost everything Americans eat now that our diets have moved away from fresh veggies and fish to foods like crackers, cookies and corn fed beef.
Today we take in at least 20 times the omega-6s than omega-3s, where once the ratio was 2 omega-6s for every omega-3. Experts suggest a healthy ratio of four omega-6s to one omega-3 is best. The trouble with our modern intake is that too many omega-6s are taken in and they tend to promote inflammation, not what you want when it comes to chronic disease prevention.
There’s no recommended standard dose of omega-3 fatty acids – even if a label says “good source of omega-3s”, this is advertising, there is no agreed upon definition. Don’t be fooled, read labels and be an informed consumer.
Some studies have found that between 500 and 1,000 milligrams of these fats a day for healthy adults is enough, and 2 to 4 grams of EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) plus DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), both found in fish, is suitable for those trying to lower their triglycerides.
Here are some tips on essential fats…
- Limit your intake of omega-6s, polyunsaturated fats.
- Go for canned light tuna in place tuna steaks or albacore tune.
- Buy the freshest fish you can, sniff to be sure.
- Remove fish skin and surface fat before eating, to minimize exposure to PCBs.
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Essential Fatty Acids: Why Are They So Important..? Continued…
When it comes to contamination of fish, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are the most likely culprits. Even though the use of PCBs and DDT was banned in the U.S., in 1976, these chemicals are still used in half the world’s commercial chemical processes. They can be lingering the air, the soil and the water for years and are very likely to end up in the bodies of fish and other animals.
Fish that eat plants are less likely to be dangerous than those that eat other fish. It’s better to eat smaller fish lower on the food chain, or smaller portions of fish that could be more contaminated.
The FDA has released an advisory on fish, but only for women who are planning to get pregnant, are already pregnant or nursing a baby. This group should avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, all thought to have high levels of mercury. The agency still recommends eating two meals (up to 12 ounces/week) of a variety of fish and shellfish like canned light tuna, catfish, Pollock, salmon and shrimp. The recommendations also include feeding fish to young children and suggest checking local advisories for information about fish caught in your area.
When it comes to omega 3 in fish, and essential fatty acids, being an informed consumer is your best bet.