May 06, 2009

Fatty Fish, Obesity, and More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Omega 3's

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.

Always good to have handy.


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?


  1. Well. I eat just about every food on that list on a regular basis so I would assume I'm getting enough but I'm fatigued, have an awful memory, depression and poor circulation too. So what's up with that?

  2. I eat mostly a variety of whole foods, plenty of raw, (not raw fish), and several types of seafood. With this, I don't worry about micronutrients, as much as the macroscopic effects of my overall diet. There's always some new favorite in the news.

    Of course, Cranky Fitness, is always good news!

  3. Well darn... I love tilapia and eat it often. Good thing it's trout season in Ontario.

  4. I try not to get too caught up in all this stuff, and just eat a wide variety of whole foods, stay active, control stress, sleep well, and hope for the best. This from a dietitian. Maybe I've been at this for too long. ;)

  5. I had no idea you could OD on the stuff! Being mostly vegetarian (although i do eat fish. and I eat meat when I'm pregnant), I rely mostly on the omega-3 capsules, fish burps and everything! In fact, it's become a joke with the Gym Buddies as we all always start in with the fish burps first thing at the gym. Good times:)

  6. Fish burps... Now why do i NOT get those when I'm eating a nice ol piece of salmon, but the moment I take those capsules I seem to have them repeating on me for what feels like forever! Still have a bloomin terrible memory though!

  7. I eat many of those foods and have even taken to adding a tablespoon or so of walnuts when I have oats.
    I still have many of those symptoms, but at least I've warded off spontaneous combustion for now.

  8. Well, I do love my salmon, shrimp and crab so hopefully I will be OK!
    Mungo beans? huh?
    I just mainly try to eat healthily and exercise...trying to keep up with what is good/bad/Ok/not OK makes my head hurt!

  9. Thanks for posting the food list. I really don't get enough - and it's good to know what works and what doesn't!

    The fish burps. It was the worst. That's why I stopped taking them! Thanks for the tips too.

  10. I'll use the supplements when I remember to take them. I also take them before going to bed so that when the fish burps happen, I'm not awake for them.

  11. I'm generally eating all the aforementioned foods, but I also take a fish oil supplement. Wonder if I'm overdoing it now? Yikes.

  12. I try to eat a few walnuts/other nuts weekly. I put hemp seed oil (yuck) in my salad dressing, pumpkin seeds in my salad. Not much of an algae fan, though I like fish, preferably raw, occasionally cooked. The really oily sustainable, not-endangered fish, unfortunately (anchovies, sardines, herring, etc.) I don't like. Other than fish sauce (more yuck-but makes food taste good), which probably doesn't have any fat, I don't eat these fish.

  13. I met a mung bean once. I didn't like it much.

    My attitude is "Omega-whats?" That list of oils to avoid? I've avoided them, all right--I've been allergic to all of them at one time or another, and briefly to all of them at once. When I'm through avoiding the foods I'm allergic to, I'll eat the rest.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky
    (The capcha is "unizinc." Should I go take some zinc? Should CF have a post on zinc next? What?)

  14. I keep my fish oil supplements in the fridge and have managed to avoid the fishy burps that way. I'm also a big fan of ground flaxseeds. I think they're the same thing as mungo beans: we use something called mung beans (or moong beans) in cooking. You can get them at Indian grocery stores; split, they look like lentils or split peas. Whole they are a little smaller than whole peas.

  15. Soon people are going to be consuming too many omega 3's and then they'll start selling omega 6 supplements to compensate. Hahaha (I really hope that this is just a joke and it DOESN'T actually happen...)

    One of the only "fortified" foods I'll eat is omega 3 eggs. Thanks for that great list of all the natural sources of omega 3's!

  16. thank you...very useful and valuable information to keep healthy with healthy foods

  17. Seems like I remember being introduced to mung beans at a Thai restaurant. If memory serves they were...bland. Which is surprising at a Thai joint.

    I used to get the fish burps. Then I switched brands and no more. Strange but true.

    I try to eat fish at least once a week. The hubby hates it. That makes it difficult. To those who are big on fish, I would suggest downloading the wallet card from here:
    (For you iPhone geeks you can even get it as an app.) It'll help you pick your fish wisely on both environmental and safety (ie mercury) terms.

  18. I love reading about this kind of stuff, but you know what's great? After all of the studies and advances in technology and science, after all of the "new" and "cutting edge" research we're just going to find that everything they've been telling us since 2nd grade is true. Eat lots of fruit and veggies, nuts, fish and other lean sources of meat, exercise a lot and stay away from sugary, processed foods and you'll be healthy.

    But if we were to just accept this age-old wisdom, what would all of the opportunists and scientists do with their spare time?

  19. I think the endless studies about what's good to eat are necessary to balance the endless ads, jingles, and commercials about how eating greasy junky fatty foods will make you tall thin and blond and surrounded by lots of friends.

  20. Plus, Omega-3's taste like chicken! (Unless you are eating some other kind of food...)

  21. My fish oil capsules don't give me the fishy burps! I take them every day.... and I'm fatigued, depressed and have a poor memory. Hmmm - wonder how bad I'd be without them!?

  22. ooh.. guess i'll have to run down to fish creek here (outside our door) and catch me some breakfast for the guests ;)


  23. Oh golly, everybody seems to be posting about omega-3s today, so I guess that means I need to pay attention. I was taking a flaxseed oil capsule every day but I just ran out. Maybe I should try the enteric coated fish kind.

    I eat a lot of broccoli...?

  24. You were right. That was more than I ever wanted to know.
    Although I think Sagan is on to something with her comment.

  25. It's obvious that we're all doomed.

  26. Okay, so ...
    we're supposed to be growing the ch-ch-chias to serve as side salads?

    Thank you for the warning about the potential brain artery rupture, though. We do not want that. Will have to cut down to 3g daily.

    I was fine all the way through "spontaneous combustion", until I got here
    "Always good to have handy"

  27. OMG, my head hurts!!!! I knew some of this but definitely not a lot of this. I get the non fish type omegas but I just don't like fish except tuna fish fixed up my way & ya have to be careful of that due to mercury. I eat pretty healthy so I just try not to worry about it. I hope with all I do, it is enough. I can't afford to take many supplements so I just try my best.. all I can do.

    Thx for the interesting post!

  28. I take a supplement derived from algae (I believe) whenever I remember to and I make sure to add walnuts to my oatmeal and flaxseed to my salad dressing. Sometimes I still worry, cuz that's just how I roll, but I figure unless my dha -> epa (or whatever it is) conversion machine is shot, then I'm at least getting some magical superfats.

  29. This is quite the informative post. Omega 3's are like the devil and the angel wrapped into one. On one hand, it's essential for good health. On the other hand, the traditional sources are big no-nos. For example, salmon is out because most are farmed or are not caught in a sustainable manner (don't even get me started on mercury). And eggs...uh, no.

    I am really encouraged about the fact that cauliflower is a good source. I just made a great, healthy side-dish of low-fat scalloped potatoes and cauliflower. The hubs actually ate it. Willingly.

    Gawd, don't they have an Omega-3 injection already? Can't they just put it in our drinking water? Everything else is in it. I'm already served a pharmaceutical cocktail with each glass of city water, so why not?

  30. Great, informative post!! Yes, at the end of the day I say screw it and eat salmon when the store has it. haha I do try and only have salmon 2 times a week at most - because I buy farmed. I know. Shame. And double shame - I'd never even heard of Omega-6. Sigh.

  31. You really covered the O-3 thing here. Thanks. I'm saving this post for reference in the future.

    But darn, I've started taking an Omega-3 capsule at every meal because it helps with arthritis/inflammation pain. (and it does). But that means I'm taking too much.

    Well, I'll cut back to 3x and see how that does...

    I think the 3/6 ration is an important point to emphasize...

  32. The little green beans that are commonly used for bean sprouts are mung beans. Could these be “mungo” beans? And who doesn't love bean sprouts? Bring’em on!

  33. You're spot on with this assessment of omega 3 and fish toxicity. Here's some more about contaminants in fish:

  34. Dr. Weil's fish oil review I found:

  35. This post provides stunning information. If fish oil can control obesity, then surely everyone will make a beeline for it. There can be nothing better than losing weight and feeling more fit. With loss of weight, the body feels suppler and many diseases are also averted. Taking fish oil can be very good for our overall health.