The Facts About Omega-3

By Colette Bouchez

If you ask folks what food group they should avoid, most will probably answer "fats." While it's true that, in large amounts, some types of fat are bad for your health (not to mention your waistline), there are some we simply can't live without.

Among them are the omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods including walnuts, some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies.

"It not only plays a vital role in the health of the membrane of every cell in our body, it also helps protect us from a number of key health threats," says Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention deficient disorder (ADD), joint pain and other rheumatoid problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer's disease.

Just how do omega-3s perform so many health "miracles" in people? One way, experts say, is by encouraging the production of body chemicals that help control inflammation -- in the joints, the bloodstream, and the tissues.

But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yet another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.

"When blood is too 'sticky,' it promotes clot formation, and this can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke," says nutritionist Lona Sandon, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But once you add omega-3s to the mix, the risk of heart problems goes down.

The latest research shows that the most promising health effects of essential fatty acids are achieved through a proper balance between omega-3s and omega-6s. The ratio to shoot for, experts say, is roughly 4 parts omega-3s to 1 part omega-6s.

Most of us, they say, come up dangerously short. "The typical American diet has a ratio of around 20 to 1 -- 20 omega-6's to 1 omega-3 -- and that spells trouble," says Sandon, an assistant professor of nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. While reducing your intake of omega-6s can help, getting more omega-3s from food is an even better way to go.

How to Get What You Need

Omega-3 fatty acids are not one single nutrient, but a collection of several, including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Both are found in greatest abundance in coldwater fish -- and that, say experts, is one reason so many of us are deficient.

Over the past several years, the Food and Drug Administration and other groups have issued warnings about mercury and other harmful chemicals found in fish. This has led many people to stop eating fish -- a big mistake, Tansman says.

"People have taken the whole FDA advisory out of context including who it's for, which is primarily pregnant women, and small children," she says. Moreover, Tansman says, even if you obey the FDA warnings in the strictest sense, the latest advisory says that up to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week is safe for everyone. That amount, Tansman reminds us, is roughly half of what we need to get enough omega-3s.

"The recommendation [for omega-3s] is two servings of fish a week," Tansman says. "At 3 to 4 ounces per serving, that's well below the FDA's safe limit of 12 ounces per week."

According to the American Heart Association, those looking to protect their hearts should eat a variety of types of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) at least twice a week. Those with heart disease should get 1 gram of omega-3s (containing both EPA and DHA) per day, preferably from fatty fish. About 1.5 ounces of fish contains 1 gram of omega-3s.

But even if you don't like fish (or choose not to eat it), you can still get what you need from dietary sources. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, says one answer lies in plants rich in omega-3s -- particularly flaxseed.

"It's safe to say this is the most potent plant source of omega-3," says Magee, author of The Flax Cookbook. While flaxseed contains no EPA or DHA, Magee says, it's a rich source of another omega-3 known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can use to make EPA and DHA.

Flaxseed is available in health food stores and many supermarkets, sold as whole seeds, ground seeds, or oil. Although flaxseed oil contains ALA, Magee says ground flaxseed is a much better choice because it also contains 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, as well as healthy phytoestrogens. Other sources of omega-3s include canola oil, broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grape leaves, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, and walnuts.

"About an ounce -- or one handful -- of walnuts have about 2.5 grams of omega-3s," says Sandon. "That's equal to about 3.5 ounces of salmon." Besides getting more omega-3s, you can also help your heart by replacing some omega-6s from cooking oils with a third fatty acid known as omega-9 (oleonic acid). This is a monounsaturated fat found primarily in olive oil.

Though it is not considered "essential" (the body can make some omega-9), by substituting it for oils rich in omega-6s, you can help restore the balance between omega-3s and omega-6s, plus gain some additional health benefits. "Factors found in olive oil can also help boost the good cholesterol, which can also help your heart," says Magee.

Supplements vs. Foods

If you're thinking that maybe the easiest and most low-cal way to get omega-3s is with fish oil capsules, not so fast. Many nutritionists say it's a bad idea.

"There is something about whole food...it's more than 90% absorbed, while [with] a supplement you absorb only about 50%." says Sandon. Moreover, says Sandon, because the components of different foods work together, they may offer a more complete and balanced source of nutrients.

"It could be something more than just the omega-3s in fish that make it so healthy," says Sandon. "It could be the amino acids that provide benefits we are not going to see in fish-oil supplements alone."

And if you're thinking fish-oil capsules will help you avoid the contamination risks of fresh fish, think again. Because supplements are not regulated in the U.S., Sandon says, some may contain concentrated amounts of the same toxins found in fresh fish. And because the oil is so concentrated, the supplements can also produce an unpleasant body odor.

More important, experts say, there is a danger of overdosing on fish-oil supplements, particularly if you take more than the recommended amount. Doing so can increase your risk of bleeding or bruising. This isn't likely to happen when you get your intake from foods.

The one-time fish oil supplements can really help is if you need to reduce your levels of triglycerides, a dangerous blood fat linked to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that people with extremely high triglycerides get 2 to 4 daily grams of omega-3s (containing EPA and DHA) in capsules -- but only in consultation with their doctors.

"The key here is to never take these supplements without your doctor's consent," says Magee. "This is not something you want to fool with on your own."

SOURCES: Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; Lona Sandon, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; associate professor of nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, consultant, WebMD Weight Loss clinic; author, The Flax Cookbook (Marlowe and Company), Northern California; American Heart Association Advisory on Omega-3 fatty acids; Food and Drug Administration Advisory on Fish Consumption.

Colette Bouchez is an award winning medical journalist with more than twenty years experience. She is the former medical writer for the New York Daily News, and the top selling author of The V Zone, co-author of Getting Pregnant and upcoming book, Your Perfectly Pampered Pregnancy. Currently a daily medical correspondent for HealthDay News Service/The New York Times Syndicate, and WebMD, her popular consumer health articles appear daily online, as well as in newspapers nationwide and in Europe and Japan. She is a regular contributor to USAToday.com, ABCNews.com, MSNBC.com and more than two dozen radio and television news stations nationwide. She lives in New York City.

Copyright © Colette Bouchez. Permission to republish retained to Pregnancy.org, LLC.