Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that may help prevent heart disease, cancer and several other major illnesses. But the body produces none of these fats; you get omega-3s from the foods you eat. Oily fish, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables are high in this essential fatty acid. Fish oil supplements are also a valuable source.
More studies are needed, but everyone -- even those on low-fat diets for health reasons -- should consume fatty fish at least twice a week, according to the American Heart Association, not only for their physical well-being but also for their mental health.
Why Omega-3s are Important
Three kinds of omega-3s available in foods are important for the body and mind: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, sometimes called LNA), eicosapentaenoic acid(EPA)and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA must be converted to EPA and DHA before the body can use it.
Most studies narrowed their focus to foods containing omega-3, fish only, fish oil or fish oil supplements, when researching how EPA and DHA benefit health. Combining information from several studies, it was determined that these sources of omega-3 may help with many common conditions.
- Prevent heart disease or its escalation: Eating fish may lower your chances of dying from heart disease. Fish or fish oil may decrease the risk of developing atherosclerosis (a sticky substance called plaque in the arteries). Foods high in omega-3 may lower [www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4778 triglyceride] (stored fat) levels and prevent irregular heartbeat and sudden cardiac death.
- Inhibit cancer: While more studies are needed, omega-3-rich food and fish oil may prevent breast, colon and prostate cancer.
- Improve fetal brain/eye development: Eaten during pregnancy, foods high in omega-3 may boost problem-solving skills. Supplements may promote better eyesight. But pregnant women need to avoid fish containing mercury, such as mackerel.
- Reduce inflammation: Fish oil may help treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Promote mental health: A few studies suggest omega-3s may help lift depression and elevate mood and improve impulse control. They may also alleviate symptoms of schizophrenia and side effects of the antipsychotic medication haloperidol.
Foods High in Omega-3
According to doctors at Tufts University School of Medicine, all adults need seven to 11 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each week. Foods plentiful in naturally occurring omega-3s include:
- 1 tbsp. flax seed oil: 6.9 grams
- 1 oz. walnuts: 2.6 grams
- 4 oz. canned, drained mackerel or salmon: 2.2 grams
- 4 oz. canned, drained sardines, 1 oz. flax seeds: 1.8 grams
- 4 oz. fresh or frozen coldwater salmon, bluefish or swordfish: 1.7 grams
- 1 tbsp. walnut oil: 1.4 grams
- ½ cup dry, cooked soybeans: 0.5 gram
- 4 oz. tofu: 0.3 gram
- ½ cup fresh or cooked spinach, kale, turnip or collard greens: 0.1 gram
Recommended Amounts of Omega-3
The American Heart Association recommends that people who’ve been diagnosed with coronary heart disease eat 1 gram of EPA- and DHA-rich foods (fish and fish oils) each day. Boost that amount to two to four grams daily if you’re trying to lower your triglycerides.
Even though walnuts, flax seed, soybeans and their oils (as well as other plant-based foods) are high in omega-3, the type they contain (ALA) is the hardest for the body to use.
But because ALA doesn’t have as strong a taste as EPA and DHA, it’s the one most often found in omega-3-fortified foods. These include certain eggs, breads, yogurts and pastas. But critics point out that eating more eggs to boost omega-3 intake for heart health is counterproductive because you’re also ingesting more cholesterol.
It’s preferable to get omega-3s you’re your diet. But if that’s impossible, fish oil supplements are available, though researchers are still looking into whether they work as well as naturally occurring omega-3s.
In some people, excessive bleeding can result from taking fish oil. It’s also been shown to raise blood sugar in diabetics. Taking more than one gram has resulted in nose bleeds in some people. Check with your doctor to see if these supplements are safe for you.
Other side effects may include upset stomach, diarrhea, acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion and abdominal bloating and pain. Over time, taking fish oil supplements may result in a vitamin D deficiency, but most products contain vitamin D to prevent this.
Prescription omega-3s are also available in a product called omacor. Because omacor is a drug, it’s subjected to rigorous testing to make sure it doesn’t contain any potentially harmful substances such as mercury or trans fats. But supplements do not undergo the same level of scrutiny because they are considered foods.
Some people who’ve taken supplements object to subsequent fishy-tasting belching or aftertaste. Tips for avoiding this unpleasantness include freezing capsules before swallowing, taking them at the beginning of a meal, considering a supplement that dissolves in the intestines rather the stomach and switching brands.
Related Omega-3 Resources
About.com Nutrition Calculating Omega-3  About.com Cholesterol Fish Oil  About.com Cholesterol Fish Oil  About.com Cholesterol Foods With Omega-3  About.com Cholesterol Foods With Omega-3  About.com Cholesterol Omacor  About.com Cholesterol Omega-3 Fatty Acids  About.com Cholesterol Rx Versus Supplements  About.com Cholesterol Walnuts  About.com Low Fat Cooking What are Omega-3s?  American Family Physician Omega-3  American Heart Association How Much Omega-3 for Whom  American Pregnancy Association Mercury in Fish  British Broadcasting Company Kinds of Omega-3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/food_matters/omega.shtml] Harvard School of Public Health Omega-3  Mayo Clinic: Improving Fish Oil Taste  Mayo Clinic Omega-3  MedicineNet.com Omega-3  National Institutes of Health What Conditions Are Helped by Omega-3  Science Daily Omega-3 and Cancer  Science Daily Omega-3 and Prostate Cancer  Tufts University Omega-3 Foods  University of Maryland Medical Center Omega-3  UPI.com Omega-3 and Cancer Surgery  WebMD Good Fat, Bad Fat  WebMD Fortified Foods