Omega-3s seem to protect us from a long list of diseases, including depression, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, colon cancer, and heart disease.
You’ve probably heard of essential oils like lavender or patchouli that you can use to infuse your bath or bedroom with a favorite scent. But the oils that most deserve to be called “essential” come from your diet: omega-3s.
Omega-3s seem to protect us from a long list of diseases tied to modern life and aging, including depression, rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, colon cancer — and heart disease. Now, an overview of research going back to 1947 has found that consuming more omega-3 in your diet, whether from food or supplements, may cut your chances of heart disease by up to 18 percent. Drilling down, the researchers also found that benefits of omega-3 oils helped people with key markers of a future heart problem, high triglycerides and the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that contributes to plaque in your arteries.
It may sound strange that a type of fat could be essential — isn’t fat bad for you? Actually, it depends on the kind of fat. Commercial trans fats and the saturated fats in meat and meat products are linked to disease. Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated, liquid at room temperature and plentiful in nuts and seeds, from which we make important cooking oils — as well as in fish. This kind of fat is built into our cells. Omega-3 fats play a role in essential body functions, including blood clotting and inflammation. They may even boost male fertility.
Unfortunately, the typical American diet, which is heavy on red meat, is low in omega-3s. By contrast, the Mediterranean diet that arose naturally in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, where people historically depended on the sea for food, is high in omega-3s. Years of research have linked the Mediterranean diet to health benefits.
To take advantage of the benefits of omega-3, feed your family more nuts, seeds, deep-sea fatty fish like salmon and sardines, and vegetables. Substitute beans for potatoes or rice. At the same time steer clear of the trans fats still in some commercial products and the saturated fats in red meat and meat products.
Flaxseed and walnuts are good foods high in omega-3. Canola and soybean oils contain more omega-3s than corn, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed oils.
One simple change in standard American lunches: substitute canned salmon for tuna — salmon tends to have more omega-3. Depending upon where you live, you may want to avoid local fish, which may contain questionable amounts of mercury and other chemicals. Mercury can show up in freshwater fish from lakes and rivers — not just deep sea fish. Especially if you are pregnant or feeding children, who are more vulnerable, check state advisories through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nut milks can be a good sources of omega-3 oils — but watch out for added sugar, and you don’t really know how many nuts you’re getting. Omega-3 boosted foods, particularly eggs, have become a bit of a cottage industry. Farm animals that eat grass, rather than commercial feed, do produce healthier meat, milk, and eggs.
Another approach is to take supplements, ideally from plankton and algae or fish purified to remove any toxins. If you are taking a blood thinner like warfarin or aspirin, remember that fish oils can thin the blood and increase your risk of bleeding — check with your doctor.
It’s not always clear how much supplementation you need, since your genes and individual differences in metabolism and absorption of nutrients all play a role. To establish a baseline, talk to a doctor about a blood test to measure the level of two of the three omega-3s — EPA and DHA — in your red blood cells. You can order it online and do it at home yourself, for prices starting at under $55. To see whether your supplements are meeting you needs, take the test again. Red blood cells live for about four months in the body, so you might wait at least that long in between tests.
April 05, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN