If you're like many people, you're probably trying to get more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. But try to resist quick fixes to boost your intake. There's more to these nutritional powerhouses than you'd realize just by reading a food label.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats found in fish, nuts and green vegetables. They can fend off prostate cancer, protect your eyes from macular degeneration, cut risk of heart disease and fight diabetes. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those who routinely consumed at least 300 grams (about 11 ounces) of fish per week had 29 percent less risk of irregular heartbeat than those who consumed less.
Our bodies produce a small amount of omega-3s, but most of what we need has to come from our diet or supplements. The richest food sources of omega-3s are oily fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, herring and sardines. Fish and shellfish contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two most potent forms of omega-3 fats.
EPA and DHA support critical functions in the brain, blood vessels and immune system. EPA produces compounds that are involved in cell division and growth, blood clotting, muscle activity, and digestion. DHA is critical for brain development and function.
The problem is, either because Americans don't like the taste or are worried about mercury and other contaminants , we don't eat nearly enough fish. On average Americans consume only about 3 ounces of fish per week. The American Heart Association recommends two servings, or 8 ounces, of fatty fish per week.
If you're not a fish fan, you can get a good supply of another omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant foods such as flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil. Unlike EPA and DHA, ALA cannot be made in the body, so it needs to be obtained from food. Not enough dietary ALA can cause scaly skin, poor healing of cuts and bruises and delayed growth.
When consumed, ALA must be converted to EPA and DHA to exert its effects. But only a small amount of ALA ends up getting turned into EPA and DHA in the body (estimates range from 0.2 percent to 18 percent). Since the foods and beverages enhanced with omega-3s — eggs, vegetable oil spreads, cereal, yogurt, cheese and milk — are typically fortified with ALA, you don't get the biggest bang from them.
That's why fatty fish — not pumped-up products — are the best dietary sources of omega-3s.
Omega-3 sourcesAlthough questions remain about how much and what types of omega-3s are needed to fight disease, the bottom line is, one nutrient or one food does not a healthy diet make. Nevertheless, if you think you're falling short on omega-3s, here are some tips to help you get the maximum benefit:
- Go fish. Most experts recommend 300 to 1,800 mg of EPA and DHA each day, preferably from fatty fish (1,000 mg is recommended for those with coronary heart disease). Wild salmon (fresh, frozen and canned), herring, sardines, sablefish, anchovies and farmed oysters are high in omega-3s and low in contaminants.
- Get to the garden. Experts recommend between 1,300 and 3,000 mg of ALA per day. Rich sources include leafy green vegetables, nuts, beans and vegetable oils such as canola, soy and flaxseed oil.
- Read between the lines. If you choose omega-3-fortified or -enhanced foods, be sure to look for labels that say “excellent source of EPA and DHA.” This indicates that the product contains at least 32 mg EPA and DHA per serving. Since many of us get ample ALA, buying a food fortified with ALA may not be worth the extra cost.
- Buyer beware. If you're pregnant or a strict vegetarian and avoid fish entirely, or if you have high triglycerides, you might want to consider omega-3 supplements as a last resort. Discuss them with your physician and be sure to mention any medication you are currently taking, as these supplements can interact with some medications and have adverse side effects.
Elisa Zied, R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She is the co-author of “Feed Your Family Right!” and “So What Can I Eat?!”
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