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Let Them Eat Fish: Why and How to Get Omega-3s in Your Diet

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Omega-3s—if they’re not part of your day, it certainly seems they should be. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to miss the fuss in the news, at the store—and even in advertisements on the subway. And all that hullabaloo isn’t for naught—omega-3s carry a ton of health benefits, and sadly, most of us aren’t getting enough. Even worse, researchers hypothesize that an imbalance between omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats (which are plentiful in the typical American diet) can lead to many health concerns that are on the rise—like heart disease and some cancers. Since omega-3s are essential (meaning that your body needs, but can’t make them) polyunsaturated fats that you must get through food, it’s up to you to design your diet to include them.

Just How Good Are Omega-3s?
There are a couple major types of types of omega-3s: the first, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant sources like walnuts and flax seed, as well as some vegetable oils like soybean and canola. ALA can also be found in tofu and other soy-based products. Then there’s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. Interestingly, your body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA. There’s a lot of debate about which of these types is more effective—and as of now, scientists don’t know clearly whether omega-3 from marine (fish) sources or vegetable sources are equally effective.

Just in terms of heart health, research shows that omega-3 fats from marine sources can help reduce blood pressure, resting heart rate and the inflammatory process (which can lead to heart disease). A recent study published in the June 2010 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that middle-aged and older women who ate one to two servings of omega-3 rich fatty fish per week were less likely to have heart failure. Though the research was conducted on women, it wouldn’t be off-base to assume men could reap similar benefits with the same amount of fish.

But that’s just the tip of the health iceberg—the July 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that men who had a high intake of omega 3s from fish were 57 percent less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a constellation of abnormal conditions that increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. Other studies show omega-3 fats to be beneficial for anti-cancer function like slowing prostate tumor growth, improving immune function, lowering blood pressure, preventing memory impairment, and aiding in improving ADHD and some skin disorders. What’s not to love about omega-3s?

What Are the Best Omega-3 Sources?
Like many nutritional recommendations, and even though you know it’s good for you, pumping up your diet with omega-3s, whether they come from fish or plant sources, takes a little consideration. For this reason, many people turn to supplements. But there’s good reason to strongly consider otherwise. For example, in the metabolic syndrome study mentioned above, those who got their benefits via diet (as opposed to through supplements) lowered their disease risk the most. And if you’re eating the food, you’re also getting additional benefits from other things you wouldn’t get from the pill.

Take, for example, fish. By choosing the fillet over the supplement, you’ll also get the antioxidant punch of both vitamin D and selenium. That’s a three-for-one benefit in just one little piece of fish! Plus, if you’re getting your omega-3s from a bottle, it’s important to be critically aware of the source purity of the fish oil—sometimes it’s hard to do that, and high-quality fish oil supplements don’t come cheap. Another bonus? Fish is a great source of protein—and if you’re watching your weight (or even just maintaining it), it’s perfectly suited to keep you full and satisfied.

So in practical terms, how do you make these big nutrition ideas work for you? Even if you don’t eat fish every day (who does?) like some studies have found, having it twice a week—the American Heart Association’s recommendation—can serve up plenty of helpful omega-3s. Plus, if you’re making a habit of trading out other proteins that are high in saturated fat in favor of fish, you’ll do double for your heart and your health.

But if you’re worried about adding fish to your diet in these budget-conscious times, don’t. Frozen fish is not only more convenient, but is also usually less expensive than a fresh fillet (but just as tasty). And don’t forget about canned chunk light tuna—a cheap, easy way to eat your omega 3s. Also, if you’re looking to cut the amount of processed deli meat you eat, tuna is a delicious way to top a salad or stuff in a pita a couple times a week. Of course, if you’re game, fresh fish is always great. Get to know your local fishmonger at a market with high product turnover (which guarantees a fresher catch) and he can help you select the fish that’s perfect for your taste. To get you started, try a few of these ways to enjoy fish: add a sauce or marinate it, sub it for another meat (like tuna kebabs instead of beef), coat it with breadcrumbs or crushed cornflakes and bake it (to mimic fried fish) or mix it into pasta.

If you’re not a fan of fish, and are looking to get your omega-3s from plant sources, a virtually effortless way to add it to your diet is with ground flaxseed. And since flax is a very concentrated source of ALA omega-3s, it’s not only easy, it’s also a super efficient way to give your diet a healthy boost. What could be easier than a tablespoon or two mixed into your oatmeal or yogurt? And talk about versatile—if you’re mixing up a batch of weekend pancakes, and find yourself out of eggs, you can use ground flax meal (one tablespoon plus three tablespoons water per egg) instead, since it can be used as a replacer in baked goods. Just as with eating fish, instead of taking a supplement, eating flax gives another bonus beyond omega-3s; it also adds fiber to your diet, too. Just one tablespoon of ground flax has a much fiber as a slice of whole wheat bread! Add to that, flax is a rich source of lignan, which has been shown to have some anti-cancer properties. Just be sure that the flax you eat is ground, not the whole seeds. Otherwise, since the seed is tiny and tough to penetrate, all your health benefits will go, well, down the toilet.

Other sources of omega-3s like walnuts and canola oil are easy to incorporate into your diet—walnuts in a trail mix make a great breakfast or cereal topper with dried fruit—and canola oil can be easily mixed into salad dressings or used to sauté veggies.

With so many benefits and ways to add omega-3s to your diet, make it your mission to incorporate a few positive changes to your diet today!