So it's not exactly news that Omega 3's are a "good" fat.
Health benefits? Oh yeah. Consumption of Omega 3's has been linked to a reduced risk of lots of bad things, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain kinds of cancer, diabetes, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, Alzheimer's, and spontaneous combustion.
OK, so I just made that last one up to see if you were paying attention. Come to think of it, all that extra oil would probably make you MORE combustible, not less.
Omega 3 fatty acids are also awesome because they reduce inflammation, and because of their high concentration in the brain, they help cognitive functioning. Not getting enough Omega 3's? Symptoms of a deficiency include extreme fatigue, crappy memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.
The American Heart Association, for example, recommends a couple of servings of fatty fish a week for most adults.
And now there's some new research on even more benefits you can get from Omega 3's if you are overweight or obese. I'll have additional info on that in a moment.
But here's the tricky part: Omega-3 isn't a food itself, like a watermelon. You can't just go to the grocery store an throw a big ol' Omega-3 in your shopping cart. You get it in something, like a bottle of supplements or a can of tuna or a bag of walnuts.
And that's where it starts to get complicated. Some experts say Omega 3 fatty acids aren't all created equal.
There's a helpful article about the the best sources of Omega 3's over at US News and World Report. And by helpful I mean the "Oh crap, why did I have to read this and get all confused?" kind of helpful.
Because apparently there is some disagreement about whether fish omega 3's and plant omega 3's are equally beneficial.
EPA, DHA, and ALA and Blah blah blah blah
On the one hand, you got your oily cold-water fish kind of Omega 3's. These are the long chain fatty acids, DHA and EPA. You get these from fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring.
And then there's the plant kind of Omega 3's (the short chain one, ALA), like in walnuts, canola oil, flax seeds, and ch-ch-ch-chia seeds.
Also, there's algae! These contain the long chain type like fish. (But hang on, it gets more complicated).
And finally we have the Great American Marketing kind of Omega 3, which comes in supplement bottles or appears in all kinds of processed food with cheerful labels saying "Now with Omega-3's!" What are these? Well, they could be DHA or EPA or ALA, it depends. You have to look at the label, if it's a supplement, or the ingredients if it's a processed food to see what's in there. If there are anchovies in your orange juice, for example, it's probably DHA and EPA.
Now after you eat ALA (the plant kind), the body converts it to EPA and DHA, which are more readily used by the body. So why does it matter if you're getting DHA, EPA, or ALA?
Well, according to the US News article above, and a bunch of other random experts I've come across recently but don't feel like chasing down right now, it's not clear you really get the same benefits from ALA (plant-based Omega 3's) that you do from DHA and EPA. More and more I'm seeing the recommendation to make sure some of your Omega 3's are from marine sources too, not just plants.
Plus, a further complication: some sources of Omega 3's like tilapia or soybean oil are also high in Omega 6's.
What's Wrong With Omega 6's?
Nothing, if we ate the amounts we used to back in the olden days--more like a 1/1 ratio with Omega 3's. But in modern diets, we eat too damn much, like 16 to 1. Excess Omega 6 compared to Omega 3 has serious health consequences. Dr. Weil, for example, suggests cutting down on cut down on consumption of "processed and fast foods and polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed)."
The bottom line recommendation seemed to be: get lots of different sources of Omega 3's, both plant and fish-based, but watch out you don't overdo the Omega 6's.
Good Foods for Omega 3's:
Here's one compilation of good omega 3 sources; google will probably find you lots more:
Seafood: Salmon, bluefin tuna, mackerel, herring, rainbow trout, anchovies and sardines, shrimp, mollusks, and Alaskan king crab.
Oils: flaxseed oil and canola oil. (Other vegetable oils like soybean, corn, and cottonseed oils have lots of omega-6).
Beans: Kidney, pinto, and mungo beans especially. (Anyone know what the hell a mungo bean is?) Chickpeas--not so much.
Nuts and seeds: Walnuts and flaxseed particularly rock.
Spinach, winter squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and papaya. Who knew?
So what if I Hate Fish or I'm Freaked Out by Mercury or I'm a Vegetarian?
Hate Fish? I don't personally hate all fish, but I'm not crazy about the oily kind except for every now and them. So I'm not confident I'm getting all the EPA and DHA awesomeness that my body would appreciate. So I go the fish oil capsule route. I buy the enteric kind, if I can find them, to minimize the dreaded fish burps. (One expert suggested that freezing the capsules first will also help with this). The experts in the US News article felt that fish oil capsules were generally safe when it came to mercury and pcb's, noting a Consumer Reports survey that tested various store-bought brands and found they were cool.
Concern about Mercury in Fish: There are some kinds of fish known to be high in mercury which you should probably not eat a lot of, and may want to avoid entirely if you are pregnant. Beware of shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. The American Heart Association has some recommendations for fish high in Omega 3 but generally low in mercury.
Also, you might want to check out Safe Harbor, which tests fish for mercury and has a seal indicating it's been tested--if you're lucky enough to have a store that sells their stuff in your area.
What About Vegetarians? Well, there are other experts who don't think failing to eat fish or fish oil is any big deal. And there are algae supplements, and algae has long chain Omega 3's.
However, these algae-based supplements tend to contain DHA but not EPA. So one of the expert recommendations was to combine algae supplements with plant-based Omega 3's for better health benefits.
Don't Take Too Much Though
If you're using supplements, you should probably stay under 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from capsules per day, unless you're being supervised by a doctor. Otherwise they're an increased risk of bleeding and possibly even hemorrhagic stroke. (That's where an artery in the brain ruptures. You don't want that). However, research is mixed on whether/how much Omega-3's increase this risk. Taking lots of omega 3's can also interfere with certain medications; another reason to check with your doctor if you want to take a bunch of the stuff.
New Studies on Omega 3's and Obesity
I did mention something about that at the beginning, didn't I? That was before I decided to write such a long-ass blog post on Omega 3's.
So I'll make it quick, in case you all are getting as bored of this dang topic as I am.
That'sFit has a good summary of the Omega 3 and obesity studies. One of them, on mice, suggested that "diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids protect the liver from damage caused by obesity and the insulin resistance it provokes." The editor and chief of the journal it was published in said "it's not unlikely that eating lots more fish or a simple switch to canola oil will make a difference," so I'm guessing it included both kinds of Omegas. But I couldn't tell for sure from the abstract.
And the other Omega 3 study, this one on actual overweight and obese people, indicated that eating long-chain (fishy) omega 3's helped those who were losing weight feel fuller after a meal.
Whew! So do you all get your Omega 3's? How? And do you watch your Omega 6's? Or do you just say "screw it" and figure if you're generally eating healthy you're probably OK?