I eat fish regularly for my health’s sake. It’s easy: I love fish for its taste, versatility and nutrient profile, including omega-3 fatty acids – a type of heart-healthy fats.
Both fish and omega-3 fats are good for the heart and probably a whole lot more. Here’s a little primer about these heart-healthy fats to help you determine if you’re getting enough. Plus, I’ve got some tips to get more if necessary.
Your body does not make omega-3 fatty acids, so you’ll need to get them in the diet or from supplements. There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids, and I recommend seeking out both.
- ALA is found mostly in seeds, walnuts and plant oils.
- EPA and DHA are found in seafood. Your body can convert only a very small amount of ALA into EPA and DHA, so eating fish and taking supplements are the only practical ways to boost the EPA and DHA levels in your body.
These heart-healthy fats do more than boost heart health.
- Heart health: The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us to eat fatty fish at least twice weekly to ensure an average daily intake of about 250 mg of EPA and DHA. No other food naturally provides a hefty dose of these health-boosting fatty acids. According to the AHA, they can decrease your risk of having dangerous, abnormal heartbeats; lower your blood triglyceride levels; and slow the formation of plaque in your blood vessels. One important point: it’s hard to know if the health benefits come directly from these specific fatty acids, the combination of various nutrients in seafood, the avoidance of certain foods – like greasy burgers – when seafood is eaten or some other factor. My guess is that it’s a little of all of these.
- Brain health: DHA is a critical component of the brain, and some research finds that diets rich in EPA and DHA are associated with better cognitive function in aging. Because DHA in particular is critical for the development of a baby’s eyes and brain, experts recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding woman consume low-mercury fatty fish twice weekly.
- Eye health: Some studies show that diets with ample EPA and DHA protect against age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss during aging.
- Arthritis: Studies on this are mixed, with some showing that EPA and DHA supplements (in the form of fish oil) reduce the need for pain medications among people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Don’t forget ALA!
ALA doesn’t get quite the attention shown to EPA and DHA. But ALA is also a heart-healthy fat, and you’ll find it in plenty of heart-healthy foods such as walnuts; tofu; edamame beans; chia seeds; flaxseed; and canola, soybean, walnut and flaxseed oils. To absorb ALA from flaxseed, you must eat the seeds ground. Chewing is not enough to release these important fats from the seeds.
Are you getting enough omega-3 fatty acids?
Most people get the recommended amount of ALA, but few people consume adequate EPA and DHA. National and international health organizations recommend that we take in an average of 250 to 500 mg of EPA + DHA daily. Yet adults in the US consume a mere 90 mg per day. Here are 3 ways to more EPA and DHA.
- Fatty fish: Food first is nearly always a good idea and one of my mantras. Some good choices are salmon, trout, tuna, sardines and herring. (The FDA advises pregnant and breastfeeding women, women who may become pregnant and children to eat light tuna more often than white albacore tuna because light tuna contains less mercury. These groups should also avoid high-mercury fish)
- Fortified foods: You will find a variety of foods with added omega-3 fatty acids. If you are not a regular fish eater, hunt out those foods fortified specifically with EPA or DHA. Fortified milk, yogurt and orange juice are just a few items on the supermarket shelves.
- Supplements: If food doesn’t get you to goal, supplements can be a good choice. But it’s always smart to check in with your healthcare provider before starting any type of supplement. By the way, the FDA recommends capping your intake from supplements to no more than 2 grams EPA + DHA per day. There may be times when your healthcare provider recommends more, but you will need medical supervision. When choosing a fish oil supplement in a sea of options, look for the total amount of EPA + DHA, not the total amount of fish oil, which will be higher because fish oil is more than just EPA and DHA. Be sure to look at the serving size too. For example, a bottle may show that a serving or dose contains 2000 mg of fish oil, but with careful review, you notice that is has only 500 mg EPA + DHA for 2 softgels or 250 mg per softgel. If you’re vegan, you can still get supplements. There are algal options. Algae is were the fish get their omega-3 fats too.
For you nutrition history buffs: Research looking at fish, omega-3 fatty acids and heart health began in the 1970s. Omega-3 fatty acids grabbed the interest of scientists when they studied the diets and health of the Inuit of Greenland, who suffered heart attack and diabetes at one-tenth the rate of people from Denmark. The Inuit’s high intake of seafood fed them a lot of EPA and DHA – about 10.5 grams daily. The notion that these fatty acids protected the heart was further bolstered with observations that countries with high fish intakes had lower rates of heart disease. Plus Italian researchers ran a very large study (called GISSI) involving people who had recently suffered a heart attack. More than 11,000 people were randomized to receive either 840 mg EPA + DHA daily or a placebo. Among other positive findings, the researchers reported that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids in this high risk population, reduced the risk of sudden death by 45%. There have been many studies since. Some with very positive findings, but other recent studies have been less enthusiastic. My own take on why recent studies of omega-3 fatty acids are less promising is that we are getting better healthcare these days. More people are meeting goals for blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol than those enrolled in the GISSI study and other studies. Plus, these days, plenty of people are taking life-saving statin drugs, which lower cholesterol levels and prevent heart attacks.
Want more info? Check out these resources.
Soundbites Podcast Episode 074: Are You Getting Enough Omega-3s with Ellen Schutt
Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED): FYI: Earlier this year, I attended an educational session sponsored by GOED. This post is not sponsored by them. Nor did they ask me to write this.