Walk Talk Nutrition talks omega 3 fats



Health claims for omega-3 fats are numerous: inflammation, heart disease, eye health, brain health and cognition, infant health and development. Research does suggest beneficial effects, but some of the claims seem to exceed actual evidence.  

WTNreducedlogoThe official Adequate Intake for omega-3 is 1.1 to 1.6 grams/day, described as the short chain alpha linolenic acid, of which 10% can come from long chain EPA and DHA. That calculates to 100-160 mg/day of those more biologically important omega-3 fatty acids.  The WHO recommends 250 mg/day.  There is no official optimal range of omega-3 in blood or any other tissues, so we don’t have any meaningful way to assess omega-3 status, or to link health benefits to any particular level.

We make the point that, because there is no official daily recommended intake, omega-3 fat content of a food is not listed on the nutrition facts panel.  Food manufacturers can put “contains omega-3!” on food labels, if the food does contain some.  They can even list the amount per serving.  But if you don’t understand what a meaningful intake would be, you might not understand that a food with 5 mg of omega-3 isn’t a significant source.

The official stance of the US Dietary Guidelines and other professional organizations (such as the American Heart Association) is that everyone should eat two servings a week of high omega-3 fish, such as:

3 oz                       mg EPA+DHA
Atlantic farmed salmon        1.82
Atlantic wild salmon          1.56
Sockeye salmon                1.05
Chinook salmon                1.48
Pacific mackerel              1.57
Atlantic mackerel             1.02
Atlantic herring              1.71
canned Atlantic sardines      0.84
canned anchovies*             1.75
farmed Rainbow trout          0.98
wild Rainbow trout            0.84
canned white tuna             0.73
fresh Bluefin tuna            1.28
Bluefish                      0.84

Unfortunately, most of the fish on our menus is low omega-3 fish like shrimp or tilapia.

The effect of omega-3 fats on brain function and cognition is a hot topic. Most of the research is short term, which might not give very meaningful data. There are some promising studies, and clearly more and better designed longer term studies are needed to clarify beneficial effects.

Our bottom line:

Getting omega-3 fats from food is only possible if you eat high omega-3 fish.  Plant sources only provide the shorter chain alpha linolenic acid, which is poorly converted to the biologically active EPA ad DHA.  Foods that are fortified with omega-3 aren’t likely to contain significant amounts.  Omega-3 fats aren’t called “fish oil” for nothing.  Milk or bread or cereal with a high omega-3 content would taste fishy, so food manufacturers can’t add to much of these important nutrients to novel foods.

For more information:

American Heart Association Eating Fish for Heart Health

Research on the effect of B vitamins and omega-3 fats on brain function in elderly subjects

A review of the evidence on omega-3 fats and heart disease

*It’s not realistic to try to get a significant amount of omega-3 fats from canned anchovies.  One typical 2 ounce can only has about 1 ounce of actual anchovies.  You’d have to eat the anchovies in 3 cans, giving you a day’s worth of sodium along with your omega-3s.

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