Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Fish

HealthGal Health Guide
  • There is a huge buzz in the health community regarding the importance of including foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids in your daily diet.  Omega-3 fatty acids fall under the group of fats called polyunsaturated fats.  They are credited with supporting a number of important processes in the human body. 


    The specific omega-3s called EPA and DHA can be sourced from fatty fishes including salmon, tuna, trout, and from shellfish like crab, mussels and oysters.  A different omega-3 fatty acid called ALA is found in some vegetable oils like canola and soybean oils.  You can also take omega-3 fatty acid supplements in the form of fish oil or krill oil (DHA and EPA) or from flaxseed (ALA). 

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    Here is a compilation of some recent facts regarding omega-3 fats:


    Recent studies on omega-3s and heart disease suggest that someone who eats fish a couple to several times a week is less likely to die of heart disease, compared to someone who rarely eats fish.


    Current studies do not appear to support the idea that fish oil supplements (containing EPA and DHA) offer the same heart-protective impact as regular consumption of fish, specifically when it comes to heart health benefits. 


    Note: This does not surprise me since it is clear that vitamin supplements do not always “perfectly replace” the sources of food they are supposed to, since the vitamins that occur naturally in foods may work a certain way because of synergy with other compounds that are present.


    A 2012 review of studies on EPA and DHA suggest that they may modestly help improve rheumatoid arthritis.  Patients who regularly consumed foods rich in these compounds reported shorter bouts of morning stiffness, and less joint swelling and pain.


    The intake of fish is particularly important during pregnancy to support healthy fetal development, and it is also crucial in infancy and early childhood.  Obviously this emphasizes the importance of consuming a couple to several servings of low mercury, cooked fish (since raw seafood may pose a problem) during pregnancy. 


    It also means that breastfeeding mothers should track the number of servings of low mercury fish in their weekly diet, so that the nursing child receives the benefits of the DHA and EPA through breast milk.  Young children can be encouraged to eat small portions of mild tasting fish.


    A review of current studies suggests that there is not enough evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids support brain and eye health, though you may have heard of small individual studies that suggest these benefits.


    A recent study suggesting the connection between fish consumption or fish oil supplement consumption (DHA and EPA) and an increased risk of prostate cancer has still not been fully vetted by the science community.  Researchers are still looking at the veracity of this possible link







    The bottom line? 


    Fish is an excellent source of protein and a good swap out for meat, because of its healthier fat.  You should become familiar with the low mercury fish choices that are also high in EPA and DHA.  They include: canned light tuna, snapper, trout, whitefish, crab and scallops.  Fish with moderate levels of mercury include orange roughy, grouper and halibut.  Limit the amounts of King Mackerel, swordfish, tilefish and shark you or your family consume because of higher mercury levels. Salmon, sardines, haddock and anchovies have “very low levels of mercury.”  The healthiest way to cook fish is to bake, broil, steam, or lightly grill it.  Using rubs and marinades can help to flavor the fish.


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    Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch?  Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103.  Catch her guest appearances on Marie! on Hallmark and other local and national news and talk shows. Follow my blogs at: http://www.healthcentral.com/profiles/c/86903

Published On: September 09, 2013