Omega-3 from salmon

It’s easy to forget that, before nutrition was hijacked by the supplement industry, we got our nutrients from food.  You still could, theoretically, get all nutrients from food, if you ate a really wholesome balanced diet, void of junk food and empty calories.  Even then, it would be hard to get enough of certain nutrients.  Vitamin D comes to mind, as well as omega 3 fats.  But a new study examines the possibility you could get enough omega-3 fatty acids from eating fish.  Not just any fish.  Salmon.

Fish has a major health halo.  It’s high protein, low fat and lower in calories than other animal foods like beef.  And some fish, like salmon or mackerel or sardines are high in omega 3 fats.  Unfortunately, most of us eat white-fleshed fish, prepared in ways that add calories.  According to the US Dietary Guidelines, everyone should eat 8 oz (1/2 lb) fish weekly.  But if your fish choices are limited to breaded fish sticks or fish nuggets, you aren’t doing yourself much good.

The study looked at the effect of eating farmed salmon twice a week, in varying portion sizes, from a very modest 90 gram serving (about 3 oz) to a more substantial 270 grams (almost 10 oz).  Each subject ate salmon in each different portion size for 4 weeks.  To assess the effect of these different portion sizes, researchers measured blood levels of the key omega 3 fats EPA and DHA, as well as several other markers for heart disease risk factors.

Results: while eating a small 90 gram portion of salmon twice a week did have a beneficial effect on omega 3 levels, the bigger portions resulted in omega-3 blood levels that were consistent with lower risk for heart disease.  In other words, if  you ate a 6 to 10 oz portion of salmon twice a week, you’d be getting significant health benefits.

There are some limitations to this study.  The number of subjects was quite small, and they were all in good health.  It’s not clear that unhealthy people would have health improvements even if omega-3 blood levels increased.  Here’s another important point: the diet study periods only lasted a month.  In between, when the subjects went back on their normal diets, omega-3 levels returned to baseline.  So in order to maintain any health benefits from salmon, you need to eat salmon, or other high omega-3 fish, every week, indefinitely.

And for plenty of people, that’s a problem.  If you don’t care for salmon or sardines or mackerel, you aren’t likely to eat them frequently, if at all.  Many people can’t afford to eat that much expensive fish.  Then there’s the problem of over-fishing.  This study used farmed Atlantic salmon, and fish farming isn’t without controversy.  But if fish aren’t farmed, then we risk over-fishing and depopulating our oceans.  One entire fishery in Alaska was recently shut down to all fishing due to salmon population collapse.  Getting omega 3 from a food source is a nice idea, but as fish becomes more expensive and possibly scarce, and as the human population grows, there might not be enough fish in the sea for everyone to eat their 8 oz per week.  In which case, we might be back to supplements as the most effective way to insure an adequate intake of this key nutrient.

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