Thursday, September 1
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Are They Essential?
by guest blogger and Framingham Health Counselor Tracey Harrison
You can't open a magazine or newspaper without reading about them.Yet Omega-3 Fatty Acids (or Omega-3s, for short) remain one of the top American nutrient deficiencies!
The body needs all sorts of different fats to function properly.Even saturated fats play a critical role for survival.Like a miraculous chemistry set, the body can typically convert most types of fat into whatever type it is missing.Omega-3s, however, are an exception. They are one of only a few types of fats called "essential" because your body cannot make its own supply. Omega-3s must be consumed. Or we suffer.
Omega-3 fats are in the headlines so much today because we've discovered just how powerful they are at controlling inflammation. Deficiency of Omega-3s can lead to low energy, depression, weakness, vision and learning problems, dry skin, poor hair and nail growth, impaired digestion, increased risk of auto-immune conditions, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, weak bones, impaired liver and kidney function, poor glandular performance, poor reproductive performance, and greater likelihood of becoming overweight. Quite a list, huh?
The good news is that Omega-3s are easy to get - in either food or a supplement.
The most common source in the American diet is fish. If you enjoy a portion of fish every day, you likely have no worries about Omega-3 deficiency.It's uncommon, for example, in much of Asia. Fish(especially fattier varieties like salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, anchovies) has an abundance of EPA and DHA, types of Omega-3 which reduce inflammation throughout the body, especially for your heart, arteries, and brain (including depression).Flaxseed has an abundance of ALA, a type of Omega-3 which has been shown to reduce triglycerides, blood sugar, and potentially harmful LDL cholesterol .ALA is also found in walnuts.But you'll need to eat at least a large handful every day.Given the typical American diet, most people need an Omega-3 supplement.
What Omega-3 supplement or food works best?
In a healthy body, we convert excess ALA to EPA and DHA. The problem is that not everyone makes this conversion efficiently. As a result, I do recommend fish oil over flax oil. Oxidized (or rancid) fats will cause inflammation vs. prevent it, and flax oil is particularly vulnerable to oxidation from heat, light, and air. I think it's best to get your ALA Omega-3s from flax by eating freshly ground flaxseed. Fish oil is loaded with EPA and DHA and, in my opinion, is the safer and healthier supplement choice.
Where did cavemen buy their fish oil?
If Omega-3s are so important, how did early humans manage to thrive on a limited diet? Especially inland without fish and with minimal, seasonal food choices. They certainly didn't zip down to the Vitamin Shoppe to take advantage of a sale! The answer is grass. Fish aren't high in Omega-3s because of anything endemic in fish; it's because fish eat seaweed. And they are efficient at translating that greenery into Omega-3s in their flesh. Early man definitely got Omega-3s from the meat they hunted. Similarly, meat today from grass-fed, pastured or wild animals that are allowed to forage for natural foods also contains Omega-3s. Today, we have widespread, "factory farming" practices in the US, and our government subsidizes corn. Thus, almost all animals raised for meat are never allowed on pasture and are fed corn feed soaked in high-fructose corn syrup. The impact? No Omega-3s in the meat. (Just for a moment - think how different things might be if we (after all, it's our government) chose to subsidize things like broccoli and Brussels sprouts... Anyway, back to Omega-3s!)
Early man also didn't struggle with the imbalance of fats the typical American consumes today.
Thanks to economic subsidy of corn and soybeans (don't get me started), most of the oil we eat is Omega-6 oils (e.g. corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, etc).This is almost certainly what you are eating in convenience, processed snack, drive-thru, and restaurant foods. Thus Americans consume a lot of Omega-6s!Early man consumed Omega-3s and Omega-6s in a 1:1 ratio.Today, our ratio is closer to 30:1.The impact?The Omega-6s become inflammatory, and we suffer from Omega-3 deficiencies.
If you aren't getting a consistent daily dose via food, I encourage you to start taking an Omega-3 fish oil supplement. They are available in capsules and liquids (and gummies for kids).If you are an otherwise healthy adult, you'll benefit from 1000mg Omega-3 fats. Note I didn't say 1000mg fish oil. Be careful when you think you've found "a bargain". Most low-end manufacturers dilute their fish oil, so 1000mg fish oil might not get you much actual Omega-3 at all.You might have to take 6 or 8 capsules to get a good dose. Read the label and add up the EPA, the DHA, and other actual Omega-3s; those are the active, anti-inflammatory ingredients you want. Sometimes the seemingly more expensive brands are actually a better deal because they are more concentrated.Your daily dose is a smaller number of capsules.
Also check to be sure the Omega-3 supplement you choose is purity certified by a 3rd party and preferably molecularly distilled. Cheap fish oil capsules will often taste and smell fishy. And you risk getting a dangerous dose of contaminants like PCBs and heavy metals, especially mercury. Far worse than not getting enough Omega-3s is getting toxic in the process of getting them. I love a bargain too, but I encourage you to save your thrifty mindset for other shopping needs. Supplements are not where you want to choose the cheapest thing you can find. From among widely available brands in stores, I recommend both Nordic Naturals and Carlsons. My prior and current clients also get awesome discounts on-line with Metagenics fish oil - a serious bargain of 1500mg Omega-3s in only two gelcaps. If you have a question about another brand, feel free to ask.
Tracy Harrison left an accomplished 15-year career in high-tech to pursue her passions for nutrition, coaching, and teaching. Tracy’s expertise areas include blood sugar management, gastrointestinal issues, fatigue/exhaustion, healthy cooking, myth-busting education, and how to truly have fun with life – no matter how complex it seems. She offers individual counseling and group programs as well as corporate seminars. Learn more about Tracy and sign-up for her free, biweekly e-newsletter at www.eatonpurpose.com .