New Look at an Old Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are among the “best” of the “good” fats. And, to be clear, some fat is essential in the diet. Fat is certainly not the dietary criminal we once thought it was. In fact, both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients, meaning that we can’t make them in our bodies, but we need them to survive, and especially, to thrive. The problem with the typical American diet has to do with the relative amounts of these essential nutrients that we consume.
Experts believe we need these fatty acids in roughly equal amounts. But they estimate that many Americans consume far too many omega-6 fatty acids and far too few omega-3 fatty acids to be healthy. That’s because omega-6 fatty acids are common in foods like corn oil and soybean oil, and these grains form the foundation of our food chain. We no longer get omega-3s from grass-fed beef for instance. Rather, cattle are fattened on grains like corn and soy. So they’re rich in omega-6 fatty acids, but provide little or no omega-3s.
Most Americans have been reduced to obtaining their needed omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources, such as tuna and salmon. To be sure, fish and fish oil are excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. And both of these are anti-inflammatory in the body. Higher consumption of these nutrients is linked to better brain and cardiovascular health, and lower risks of various common inflammation-related diseases and conditions.
But not everyone eats fish. And few of us eat enough to balance our outsized intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
But what about vegetable sources? For years, researchers have noted that the one plant form of omega-3, called ALA, must be converted in the body to DHA and EPA, in order to be beneficial. And this conversion process is inefficient. So, it was argued, relying on foods like flaxseed, walnuts, or chia seeds to supply a vegetarian’s need for omega-3 fatty acids is risky.
But now investigators are taking another look at plant sources of omega-3s. ALA is just as likely to contribute to the reduction in cardiovascular disease risk as marine sources, they’ve concluded. “Our understanding of the cardiovascular disease benefits of ALA has advanced markedly during the past decade,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Penn State. “Based on the current evidence, ALA decreases CVD risk.”
So continue adding ground flaxseed to those smoothies! It’s all good. What about you? Are you a vegetarian who worries about getting complete nutrition? I’d love to hear how you manage to get enough omega-3s in your diet.
J. A. Fleming, P. M. Kris-Etherton. The Evidence for -Linolenic Acid and Cardiovascular Disease Benefits: Comparisons with Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 2014; 5 (6): 863S DOI: 10.3945/an.114.005850