The health benefits of omega 3s are plentiful. An essential fatty acid, it plays a crucial role in brain function as well as normal growth and development. Research also shows that omega-3s reduce inflammation and may lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Even though omega-3s are fundamental for our health, our bodies can not manufacture them. Instead, we must get them through a properly balanced diet.
Fats in general are a quintessential part of a healthful diet, despite their bad rep. The key is to eat the right ones and reduce intake of the bad ones: saturated fats occur naturally in animal products and are likely less healthy; monounsaturated fats are healthful fats found in foods associated with the Mediterranean diet; and polyunsaturated fats comprise all of the essential fatty acids and are not naturally produced by the body. (For even more on this topic, read “All About Fats.”)
Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Many nutrition experts believe we should consume these fats in nearly equal amounts for optimal health. Unfortunately, the average American consumes an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1 or higher. This is because omega-6s are easy to find—they are available in highly refined vegetable oils, which are abundant in processed and fried foods—whereas there are few sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
There are two critical, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that the body most needs: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid). The third, short-chain omega-3s are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). While they are also beneficial, they have less potent health benefits than DHA and EPA.
Turn to these sources to get your adequate omega-3 fatty acid intake.
DHA and EPA are most typically found in fish oil. Many health experts agree that fatty fish is your best source of omega-3s and recommend consuming fatty fish twice a week (a serving size of 3.5 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards). Fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines and tuna contain the most omega-3 fatty acids. Many other types of seafood contain small amounts of omega-3s, while some fish such as tilapia and catfish don’t appear to be as heart healthy because they contain higher levels of unhealthy fatty acids. Be sure to purchase wild-harvested seafood products.
A handful of seeds can also boost your omega-3 intake, flax seed and walnuts in particular—1/4 cup flax seed contains 6.3 grams omega-3 fatty acids, and 1/4 cup walnuts contains 2.7 grams. Other seeds rich omega-3s include chia, hemp, butternuts, pecans and pine nuts. Add a nutty flavor to salads, yogurt or your morning breakfast granola with a handful of these seeds. You can also cook with healthful nut oils, including soybean, rapeseed, flax seed and walnut oils, to reap similar health benefits.
Eating plenty of veggies is always essential for a healthful diet. It’s no different here—a lot of your favorite vegetables are good sources of omega-3s. Cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are particularly great sources, as are winter squash, collard greens and spinach.
While it’s always better to get omega-3 fatty acids from food, you can certainly get your DHA and EPA by taking fish oil supplements. The government doesn’t set RDAs for fatty acids, but typical fish oil doses in studies range from 1 to 4 grams a day. Fish oil is used in supplements, but there are also vegetarian supplements available.
Gina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living, where she manages the health section of the magazine.
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