13 Oct Get Your Daily Dose of Omega-3s- Without a Pill
By Jennifer Senecal, M.S.
For much of the 90s, “fat” was a dirty word, but today we know better. Fat is a necessary part of the human diet and a part of our cells. The body makes several types of fat, but others, like omega-3 fatty acids, are ‘essential’ because we cannot make them in the body. Instead, we must eat ‘essential’ fats.
These powerhouse polyunsaturated fats are major nutrition multitaskers, working to, make hormones, regulate the cardiovascular system and aid in eye health, mental health, and more!
There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoioc acid) are found in animal foods like fish. Another type, known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), is found only in plant foods like flax seeds. In order or the body to use ALA, it must convert it to DHA and EPA. This time consuming process makes ALA a less efficient source of nutrients than DHA and EPA. While there is no official recommendation for omega-3 fatty acids, liberal inclusion of omega-3 rich foods is highly encouraged by the USDA and the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Omega-3 and fish oil supplements have become quite popular in recent history. However, while some research suggests possible benefits to supplementation, especially in folkse with high blood pressure and high triglycerides, the FDA does not regulate the dietary supplements. It can be safer- and potentially more beneficial- to get a healthy dose of omega-3’s by eating whole foods first.
Fatty fish is the food most commonly associated with omega-3s, and for good reason! A serving of salmon, sardines, mackerel, or tuna can contain up to 600 mg of DHA and EPA combined. The American Heart Association has gone so far as to include at least two servings (3.5 ounces) of fatty fish per week in their dietary recommendations.
But for folks who are not so keen on fishy dishes, there are other options…
Plant sources of omega-3s include breakfast foods, such as flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Throw any of these options into your A.M. oatmeal or cereal of choice. Note that whole flax seeds cannot be broken down by the human digestive tract, and should be ground into flax meal to obtain the nutritional benefits found in the omega-3 containing flax oil.
Canola oil also offers a decent dose of healthy fat. Cooking stir-fried veggies or proteins in a tablespoon or two of canola oil will step up your healthy fat game.
Some foods, like eggs, may contain omega-3’s if the chickens were fed an omega-3-rich diet. The chicken feed includes DHA-rich algae or ALA-containing flax. Some milk products may also contain omega-3s for the same reason, if the the milk-producing cows were provided omega-3 rich feed.
Other omega-3 filled foods have appeared on the market. From orange juice to peanut butter to cheese, the buzz over the health benefits of omega-3s has spread across the grocery store. However, make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Read the ingredient list to check if the produce was fortified with DHA or EPA, otherwise there’s a good chance the omega-3s are added from plant-sourced ALA- the less nutritionally efficient form of the fatty acid.
Grass-fed beef is also known to contain a small amount of omega-3 fats compared to its grain-fed counterpart. Grass is a great source of omega-3s, unfortunately, humans are unable to digest it. Thus, we must defer to the cow (who can!) to consume it indirectly. If you choose grass-fed beef as a source for omega-3s, aim for 85-95% lean beef, and moderate portions (3-4 ounces).
While it is less likely that you will consume too much omega-3 fat from food alone, it is possible to overdo it with supplements. Intake of omega-3s in excess of 3 grams (3000 mg) per day is potentially harmful. The addition of a supplements should always be discussed with your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) first.
As with all nutrients needed for health, the best results are reached by striking a balance. Incorporating a variety of foods rich in omega-3 will allow you to reap the most benefit from this vital nutrient.
Jennifer Senecal, MS recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she also recently completed the dietetic internship. Based in NYC, Jennifer is excited to put her enthusiasm for nutrition, food, and fitness into action as a professional. A yoga instructor since 2009, she hopes to weave together nutrition education and counseling with an appreciation for movement and mindfulness, as she enters the health field.