Omega-3 101

April 28, 2014

Don’t forget about omega-3s. If Omega-3’s are no new thing on the nutrition radar, but it still seems we're not getting enough. Find out why and how here...

Don’t forget about omega-3s. If Omega-3’s are no new thing on the nutrition radar, and the various health benefits of consuming these fats are widely accepted and understood, why then, are Americans still failing to obtain a sufficient amount in their diets?

A Harvard School of Public Health study, looked at 12 different modifiable and preventable causes of death and surprisingly (or not) omega-3 deficiency ranked as the sixth cause of preventable death in the US. This translates to 72,000 to 96,000 preventable deaths yearly.

Key word …preventable! To keep from happening or existing, taking advanced measures against something possible or probable, as defined by Merriam-Webster. According to the study, up to 96,000 deaths could be prevented by obtaining adequate dietary Omega-3s!

A quick refresher on Essential Fatty Acids:

There are twenty different types of fatty acids needed by the body for optimum health. We can manufacture all but two, thus they are named, the essential fatty acids: Omega-3 Linolenic Acid (LNA) and Omega-6 Linoleic Acid (LA). 

Specifically, Omega-3 consists of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the components known for their role in protecting the brain and body cells from the physiological effects of stress, reducing heart disease risk factors, possibly reducing prevalence of dementia, reducing symptoms of some skin ailments, and helping support pregnancies and infant brain and eye development.

Oily fish, such as salmon, scallops, sardines, anchovies, and shrimp, are some of the best natural sources of Omega-3 EPA/DHA. EPA and DHA are readily used by various cells in the body and contribute to the health benefits of Omega-3s; ALA (found in plant foods) cannot be directly used by the body and has to be converted into EPA and DHA. The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is limited and thus larger quantities of ALA rich foods need to be consumed to obtain sufficient levels. Some great sources of ALAs include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, cauliflower, cabbage, winter squash, tofu, soybeans, and walnut oil.

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to set specific recommendations for Omega-3 intake, but the National Institute of Health recommends consuming at least 2.5 grams of Omega-3s daily. If you are on a plant based diet, thus only consuming ALAs, it is recommended to consume between 1.3-2.7 g ALA per day to ensure adequate amounts are being converted to EPA and DHA. 

Quick Translation: Grams to Portion Size: 
One 4 oz. serving of fish twice a week - salmon, scallops, sardines, shrimp, cod, tuna, and mackerel are all good sources. Wild caught are preferred over farmed. Wild fish consume more foods rich in omega-3s, and thus are thought to contain more of these healthy fats.

Plant sources: about one-quarter of a teaspoon of flax seed oil/ 2TBS flaxseeds, 1/4 cup of walnuts, and 1.3 tablespoons of soybean oil will all do the trick!  One cup of soybeans contains about 40% of the daily requirement, and one cup of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, winter squash, and tofu contain approximately 8-14% of the daily requirement.

Whole foods are recommended over supplements, but if you do not enjoy the foods listed above, speak to a health professional about supplementation. There are also many fortified foods available in your local supermarket. Make sure to read labels carefully in order to understand the source of the Omega-3. It will either be from a marine source and thus the readily absorbed EPA/DHA or ALA from a plant source (requiring increased fortification or consumption i.e. more calories to receive the intended benefit).

We have all of the facts, including the knowledge of how to consume an adequate amount of Omgea-3s, and the unavoidable truth that deficiency is one of the leading causes of death in our country. If you are still wondering why you were forced to take cod liver oil as a kid now you know! So get out there and get your Omega-3s!