Wellness: Fishing for the Truth

What you need to know about fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids.

Comments (6)
Thursday, June 02, 2011

By now, almost everyone has heard about the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and how important they are for your health. But some people don't care for fish, and even those who like fish often don't eat it every day. That probably explains why fish oil is now among the top-selling nutritional supplements.

In fact, the demand for fish oil has gotten so huge on the strength of the omega-3 story that now there are serious concerns about the effects of over-fishing. And there was a big scandal when it was recently discovered that some well-known brands of fish oil contained unacceptable levels of PCBs.

Omega-3s are very important to your health. However, you don't necessarily need to increase your intake to get the benefits.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Before I explain, many of you may think I've overlooked an obvious solution. Certain seeds, including flax, hemp, and chia, are also rich in omega-3s. I haven't forgotten about these other sources of omega-3 fats. But the kind of omega-3 found in these seeds isn't as potent as the form found in fish oil.

Omega-3 actually refers to a whole family of fatty acids. At the top of the family tree is alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA. It's the most common kind of omega-3, but it's also the least biologically active. In order to get the most benefit from ALA, your body first has to convert it to other omega-3s like EPA and DHA. That conversion process isn't terribly efficient. Depending on the circumstances, only a small fraction of ALA may actually get converted into the turbo-powered EPA and DHA forms.

The advantage of fish oil is that the fish have already done this conversion for you. Flax oil contains a whole bunch of ALA but almost no EPA or DHA. Fish oil, on the other hand, contains ALA but also lots of EPA and DHA. So flax doesn't necessarily have the same benefits as fish or fish oil.

But the alternate solution I'm going to propose has another clever benefit. Not only does it allow you to get more benefit from less omega-3, it also helps make your body more efficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA, so it makes these vegetarian sources of omega-3 more valuable.

What are Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

OK, by now, you're probably pretty curious about what I've got up my sleeve. But first I need to clear up a little misconception about another family of fatty acids called omega-6. I bet you've heard about them too.

The reason that we're all being told to eat more omega-3s is that your body works best when you have a balanced intake of omega-3s and omega-6s. For most of us, though, our intake of these two families of fats is anything but balanced. Unlike the omega-3 fats, which are sort of few and far between in the food supply, omega-6 fatty acids are everywhere you turn.

Which Foods Contain Omega-6 Fatty Acids?

Vegetable oils such as corn, peanut, and soybean oils are very high in omega-6 fats. Because these oils are inexpensive, they are widely used in food processing and manufacturing. As a result, most of us get a lot of omega-6 in our diet, and not that much omega-3. But I don't want you to get the idea that omega-6s are somehow bad. They're not. They are just as essential as omega-3s. In the body, they have opposing but complementary functions.

Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6: the Lemonade Method

It's a little like making lemonade. You need both sweetener and lemons to make lemonade. But lemonade only tastes good when the sweet and tart flavors are properly balanced. Let's say you have a whole bunch of sweetener. You could go out and buy a truckload of lemons and make a lot of lemonade. Or, you could use only a portion of the sweetener, in which case you'd need far fewer lemons to make your lemonade.

Our modern diets are like lemonade made with way too much sweetener. We get way too much omega-6 fat. To correct this, we're being told to add more lemons, or omega-3s, to balance it out. I hardly ever hear anyone suggest that could accomplish the same thing by eating less omega-6.

You'll need less omega-3—and will get more benefit from vegetarian sources of omega-3—if you cut back on your omega-6 intake.

Here are a few tips on how to do this:

Use olive or canola oil: In the kitchen, use olive or canola oil instead of other vegetable oils.

Read labels: Read labels on processed foods and cut back on those that contain vegetable oils, including corn, soybean, peanut, sunflower, or safflower oils, especially if they contain more than a few grams of fat per serving.

Watch out for seeds: Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pine nuts, and peanuts are all rich in omega-6. You don't need to avoid them altogether, but eating a lot of these foods will increase the amount of omega-3 you need to maintain a balance.

Comments (6)
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Hey Editors...!

Sorry it took me a few episodes to figure out this is just a canned column, from who knows what syndication group. Hate to break it to you, but significant parts of the gobbledygook written in this column consists of trendy half truths that sound kinda like 'new and better' info but aren't. Didn't take much research to find errors in the info, and of course it's all unsupported in the text. Surprise, surprise, it's from a commercially succesful 'nutrition expert'. Don't you think your readers are inteligent enough to deserve something better than this? Isn't there something of higher quality you can post here? Just sayin'....


Posted by JT on 5.31.11 at 21:48

Hi, JT.

Can you be a little more specific? Which statements or concepts do you take issue with? Although I have to cop to being a "commercially succesful nutrition expert" I don't think that in and of itself disqualifies me as a reliable source. I'd be happy to get into details with you if you're interested in a civil exchange!

Posted by Monica Reinagel, MS, LN on 6.1.11 at 12:06

Hi Monica,

You're alive! Nice to hear from you, I missed you on my post on your previous column. I was wondering, since (I'm assuming) you didn't do the research that led to the content in your above statements, could you point out what sources you used to draw your conclusions? I mean, something I can read and say, oh, that's where she got it from, as opposed to, say, sighting a general US gov't website or similar.


Posted by JT on 6.1.11 at 13:53


Again, it would help if you could let me know which statements you're questioning. If it's about fatty acid metabolism, I can refer you to some nutrition textbooks. (I have a fairly large collection of them, accumulated during my graduate work in human nutrition.) It it's about what foods provide which nutrients, I can direct you toward nutrient databases. If it's something more specific, I can point you toward some of the primary research I've consulted.

I'm afraid it's not really possible for me to keep track of responses to my material once it's been distributed by third party syndicators (which my publisher does) but I'm very responsive to comments and questions that are posted on the website for my podcast (which this was taken from) or blog. Feel free to connect with me there as well. I don't know if I can post links here but a google search on my name (or my alias Nutrition Diva) should take you there in a click!

Posted by Monica Reinagel, MS, LN on 6.1.11 at 15:21

Hi Monica,

Thank you for your second prompt reply. I understand that your schedule and / or interraction with your syndicated column prevents you from keeping track of postings, so I thank you for 'paying attention' in this instance, and I also thank any in your chain of command who may have indicated that my comment was something to respond to. I will take a take a moment to properly compose a more detailed response, I will post it at the site you suggest in your reply, and I will post it back here as well (at the most recent syndicated version of your column at that time), on the off chance someone besides me may be interested.


Posted by JT on 6.3.11 at 12:12

Hi, JT.

Actually, no one brought your comment to my attention or asked me to respond. I just happened to catch it because the syndicated article popped up in my google alert. I'm happy to engage ANY of my readers--syndicated or not--I just have a much better chance of SEEING the comments when they are on the primary source sites. I'll watch for your question/comment but in the mean time I just saw a new study that might interest you.

Researchers found that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 was more significantly correlated to reduced risk of depression than intake of fish oil. Here's the citation: Am J Clin Nutr June 2011vol. 93 no. 6 1337-1343

Posted by Monica Reinagel, MS, LN on 6.8.11 at 14:59



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