Wellness: Fishing for the Truth

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

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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.

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