Go Fish

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Omega-3 fatty acidProxy-Connection: keep-alive Cache-Control: max-age=0 pack a powerful punch in improving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Recommended for improving heart function, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and certain nuts facilitate lowering triglycerides and cholesterol, reduces inflammation and even helps depression.

“There are three types of omega-3 fatty – EPA, DHA and ALA. Fish oil contains EPA and DHA,” says Sonja Stolfa, registered dietician with Saint Francis Health System.

“You really need a good balance between all three of the different types of fatty acids.”

According to the American Heart Institute, which recommends at least two servings of fatty fish a week, omega-3 decreases the risk of arrhythmias, or abnormal heartbeats, which can lead to sudden death, slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and help lower blood pressure. Additional studies are showing that these mighty acids may also be helpful in autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Supplements vs. Whole Food

Experts and studies agree that consuming fish or other omega-3 rich foods is the best way to receive the maximum benefits. However, the waters become slightly more muddied on the usage of fish oil supplements.

“I personally am not a big fan of fish oil supplements, mainly because of the lack of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration,” says Suzanne Forsberg, registered dietician with the St. John Weight Management Institute.

“I usually tell my patients to try to eat two servings of cold-water fatty fish, such as halibut, wild Alaskan salmon, cod, mackerel, trout and haddock, per week.”

“Eating fish is always a better option to achieve the maximum benefit,” agrees Stolfa. “However, some people just don’t like the taste of fish or can’t eat enough fish to reach the levels of omega-3 they need to be beneficial so they may need to add in the supplements.”

Stolfa recommends for the patients who are past the point when they are able to achieve a high enough level of omega-3 from food alone, such as those with coronary heart disease, that it is best to consult with a physician about the amount of supplements to incorporate into their daily routine.
 

“I usually tell my patients to try to eat two servings of cold-water fatty fish, such as halibut, wild Alaskan salmon, cod, mackerel, trout and haddock, per week.”

Additional concerns about the levels of mercury found in fish have some rethinking the amount they incorporate into their diets. While all fish has some level of mercury in it, shark, swordfish and king mackerel have the highest concentrations, while tuna, salmon and catfish have some of the lowest concentrations. Consuming a variety of fish can also help to minimize potential adverse effects.

Pregnant women and children are generally advised to limit the amount of fish they consume due to mercury concerns – one to two cans of tuna or 12 ounces of fish once a week is typically advised. For the rest of the population, most of the readily available fatty fish is fair game.

“As far as the concern with consumption of fish and mercury levels, I believe the benefits of fish far outweigh the potential risk of mercury poisoning,” says Forsberg. “In fact, a study from Purdue University in 2005 found that drinking green or black tea or eating soy protein or wheat bran with fish reduces the bioavailability of any possible mercury in the fish.” 

“You have to look at the benefits of an overall diet. I believe that fish oil supplements are safe,” adds Stolfa. “The FDA has to approve them but you have to be sure to read the labels to see exactly what you’re getting.”

Stolfa also cautions that if using supplements to pay attention to the storage instructions and expiration dates since fish oil can spoil.

As government and food guidelines embrace fish as a type of super food, more physicians are trying to follow the guidelines to get their patients to the right levels of omega-3. The Mediterranean diet focuses primarily on good fresh foods that are packed with beneficial fats. So the next time you’re strolling down the vitamin aisle or by the meat counter, consider throwing in some fish oil or fresh salmon to round out a healthy routine.

Not-so-fishy Alternatives

Think eating fish stinks? Try these foods rich in fatty acid to supplement your omega-3 intake.

Walnuts: Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid similar to those found in heart-smart fish, such as salmon. In addition to essential ALA/omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts rank high in antioxidants and provide a convenient source of protein and fiber. 

Sunflower seeds: Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both present in sunflower seeds – there are 34 milligrams of omega-3 in one cup of seeds. Sunflower seeds are also a particularly good source of vitamin E, thiamin, manganese and folate. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and may reduce symptoms of asthma, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Flax seeds: One of the most nutrient-laden foods known, flax seeds are high in alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, in addition to a host of other beneficial components. Flax seed is high in most of the B vitamins, magnesium and manganese. One would also be hard-pressed to find a food higher in fiber. This fiber is probably mainly responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effects of flax. Fiber in the diet also helps stabilize blood sugar, and, of course, promotes proper functioning of the intestines.

Avocados: Avocados are rich in nutrients – vitamins A, B-complex, C, E, H, K and folic acid – plus the minerals magnesium, copper, iron, calcium, potassium and many other trace elements. Avocados provide all of the essential amino acids (those that must be provided by our diet), with 18 amino acids in all, plus seven fatty acids, including omega-3 and 6. Avocados are also high in protein.

Kale: Kale is from the same family as cabbage and collard greens. It is considered a nutritional powerhouse because it has more nutritional value (for fewer calories) than almost any other commonly found foods. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, some of the vitamins and minerals kale has to offer include vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and beta carotene.

Spinach: A well-known “super food,” spinach is a nutritional and preventative powerhouse. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, spinach is extremely rich in antioxidants, especially when fresh, steamed or quickly boiled. It is a rich source of vitamin A (and especially high in lutein), vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, folate, betaine, iron, vitamin B2, calcium, potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid, copper, protein, phosphorus, zinc, niacin and selenium.

Brussels sprouts: Brussels sprouts get a bad rap, but the tiny cabbage heads are nutritional giants. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, brussel sprouts also have high concentrations of vitamins K and C, vitamin A, folate, potassium, thiamin, vitamin B6, magnesium, copper and calcium. Cut down on the oft-maligned fragrance while cooking by tossing in olive oil and roasting in lieu of the stinkier boiling preparation; or toss raw in a salad.

A tablespoon of canola or soybean oil added to a leafy green salad can also boost your healthy fat intake.

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