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Making Sense of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Sep 16, 2013
Omega-3 fatty acids. You've probably heard a lot about their value to your health, but do you really understand the ways in which they are beneficial to your health and which foods to get them from?
If not, I hope that this article will help you make sense of omega-3 fatty acids and help you make food choices that will ensure that your cells are nourished with them on a regular basis.
First, here are the key health benefits of including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet:
Omega-3 fatty acids can help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. In doing so, they can reverse and prevent high blood pressure, as well as reduce your risk of suffering a stroke.
Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease pain and inflammation throughout your body.
Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent breast and colon cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids can help reverse and prevent depression and other mental/emotional health challenges.
Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because your body cannot manufacture them from other nutrients; you must obtain them from your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids come in three varieties:
ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) - found primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and a variety of vegetable oils. Dark green vegetables, freshly ground flax seeds, and raw walnuts are the healthiest sources of ALA.
EPA (EicosoPentaenoic Acid) - found primarily in cold water fish like salmon, cod, mackerel, and tuna, as well as in fresh seaweed. Also found in smaller amounts in organically raised animal products like free-range eggs, chickens, and grass-fed beef.
DHA (DocosaHexaenoic Acid) - found in the same foods that EPA is found in.
Your body is able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. So theoretically, if you are in excellent health and eat lots of dark green leafy vegetables, ground flax seeds, and walnuts, your body should be able to produce enough EPA and DHA from ALA to provide all of the health benefits listed above.
People who support the use of fish oil as a direct source of EPA and DHA will sometimes cite studies that claim that some groups of people are not able to convert ALA to DHA, at least not very efficiently.
People who support exclusive use of plant foods tend to point to studies that suggest that humans don't have a problem converting ALA found in plant foods to EPA and DHA, thereby suggesting that it is not essential to eat animal foods that contain EPA and DHA.
Ultimately, the only way to know with absolute certainty that you are getting enough ALA, EPA, and DHA from your diet is to analyze your fatty acid profile with a specialized blood test.
Rather than spend money and time getting an expensive fatty acid profile test, I prefer to rely on a well balanced diet that includes lots of dark green leafy vegetables, some walnuts, and a small amount of clean animal foods like wild salmon, organic eggs, and cod liver oil to ensure that my family and I are getting enough ALA, EPA, and DHA to support our best health.
Some people who support eating only plant foods raise objections to using fish oil, such as the possibility of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil turning rancid, as well as the possibility of fish oil containing environmental pollutants like mercury. These objections are valid, as independent studies performed by organizations like consumerlabs.com have found that some brands of fish oil contain rancid fatty acids that can harm your health. And there's no question that fish from all parts of the world stand a chance of being contaminated to some degree by mercury and other industrial pollutants.
These are reasons why I use and recommend cod liver oil made by Carlson Labs in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Carlson goes to great lengths to protect the fatty acids in their cod liver oil against rancidity. They also have their cod liver oil tested on a regular basis by an independent, FDA-approved laboratory to ensure that it is not contaminated by mercury and dozens of other environmental pollutants.
Do you need to use a high quality fish oil on a regular basis to get enough EPA and DHA to support your best health? Not necessarily. If you regularly eat foods that are listed beside each of the omega-3 fatty acids listed above, chances are that you will get enough omega-3 fatty acids to support your best health.
What if you want to be strict vegan? Then I recommend that you eat lots of dark green leafy vegetables, some walnuts, some freshly ground flax seeds, and take a DHA supplement made from a plant source.
My personal and clinical experiences have led me to believe that it is best for most people to obtain their omega-3 fatty acids from a variety of the plant and clean animal foods mentioned in this article. This is what people of all cultures have done throughout the history of our world. As it is with all of the nutrients that we know of, omega-3 fatty acids work synergistically with many co-factors to provide their health promoting effects. Flow charts in biochemistry textbooks are important to understand and apply to our dietary choices, but in my opinion, they represent only a partial picture of the countless physiological reactions that keep our cells alive. With this in mind, I feel that it is wise to eat a variety of foods that are naturally rich in ALA, EPA, and DHA rather than to rely on a supplement that contains just one or more of these omega-3 fatty acids as isolated nutrients.
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