By: Pam Smith, RDN
What Makes Omega-3 Fats So Vital for Optimal Health?
IThey are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. Omega-3s allow nutrients to enter the cell more efficiently and waste products to exit. They also provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction, and relaxation of artery walls. These top-gun fats lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. They have a wide range of impressive health benefits for the rest of the body, too - from boosting your immune army’s fighting power and elevating your mood to smoothing your skin, aiding weight loss, and minimizing the effects of degenerative and inflammatory diseases like lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis. And, they may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions. Omega-3 fatty acids literally promote and propel our health and wellness from head to toe.
Types of Omega-3s
Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA, for short) come mainly from fatty fish, so they are sometimes called marine Omega-3s. Both are potent anti-inflammatories. Although EPA and DHA can be obtained through supplements, and supplements may be helpful as a therapeutic treatment, they have not been found to confer the health benefits associated with eating fish. Cold water fish overflows with EPA and DHA. According to the American Heart Association, consuming just two 3.5 oz. servings per week of non-fried, preferably oily, fish is associated with lower risk of coronary artery disease, with studies showing that people who eat fish regularly are less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, or develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, studies have shown that eating Omega-3-rich fish just once a week may lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive impairment significantly.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the most common Omega-3 fatty acid in most Western diets, is found in vegetable oils and nuts, flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals and eggs from chickens fed a high ALA diet. The human body generally uses ALA for energy. The typical American diet contains plenty of ALA, but is lacking in Omega-3s since most of us do not consume enough fish, nor on a regular basis. Most all of the research on the health and wellness benefits has been done on long chain Omega 3’s. The body can convert small amounts of the short chain ALA omegas to the long chain DHA and EPA – but not well, and not consistent person to person. We need cold water fish and seafood to get the nutritional power they provide.
The “Omega-3” claim can be misleading when it comes to food, beverage, and even supplement products.
Make sure that the products you seek out actually contain EPA and DHA, and not just the short chain Omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). While ALA from flax, chia, nuts, and seeds might have health benefits in its own right, the health benefits just don’t compare to getting EPA and DHA into your diet. If a product says it only contains Omega-3s, but doesn’t specify the source it comes from, like salmon oil, algal oil, or marine sources, or the type of Omega-3 (namely EPA and/or DHA), look elsewhere to be sure you are getting the right Omega-3s.
When possible, try to get Omega-3 fatty acids from foods first; supplements as needed. Each week, aim to eat 8-12 ounces of salmon high in DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids (or other cold water oily fish like striped bass, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and black cod) to achieve a 250 mg average daily intake of EPA and DHA.
Other Ways to Get EPA and DHA Nutrients into the Diet
Seaweed and Kelp — small amounts of DHA
Horizons DHA Whole Milk — 32 mg per 1 cup
Omega-3 Eggs (look for those with algal oil or marine oils in diet, such as Phil’s DHA Eggs or GoldEgg Omega Choice) — 130-150 mg per egg
Omega-3 Yogurt (fortified with EPA and DHA) — 30-100 mg per 4 ounce serving
Omega-3 Gummies (generally 32-60 mg of DHA and EPA, some up to 100 mg EPA and 50 mg DHA)
Omega-3 Emulsions — highly concentrated dose
Although these do provide options for EPA and DHA, your best route is a high quality salmon! My Omega-3 pick is Kvaroy Arctic Salmon. It has double the Omega-3 content of other farmed salmon – a perfect combination of nutritious and delicious!