You hear about omega-3s but do you really understand what they are? We know they’re in fish and that they’re good for us, but why exactly? With February being Heart Health month, I wanted to explain a little more what exactly omega-3s are, why they’re so good for us, and where else we can get them besides in fish.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3s belong to a family of fats called essential fatty acids. Your body needs these fats, but cannot make them. You must get them from the foods you eat. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the essential fatty acid found in some vegetable oils. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in fish, eggs, and organ meats
What can high-omega-3 foods do for me?
- Reduce inflammation throughout your body
- Keep your blood from clotting excessively
- Lower the amount of lipids (fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) circulating in the bloodstream
- Help arteries relax and dilate, helping slightly lower blood pressure
- Inhibit the thickening of the arteries and slow rate of plaque growth
What are the sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids?
- Flaxseed/oil (linseed oil)—the richest natural source
- Canola oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Oily fish
Can I get my omega-3 essential fatty acids from vegetables?
Yes, although fish provides the most readily-available form of omega-3. But if you are working towards eating more fish, incorporating a variety of green vegetables into your diet will provide you with omega-3s. Try seaweed, broccoli, spinach, kale, spring greens, dark salad leaves, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and parsley for reasonable sources of omega-3s.
How does cooking, storage, or processing affect omega-3 fatty acids?
Polyunsaturated oils, including the omega-3 fats, are extremely susceptible to damage from heat, light, and oxygen. When exposed to these elements for too long, the fatty acids in the oil become oxidized, a scientific term that simply means that the oil becomes rancid. Rancidity not only alters the flavor and smell of the oil, but it also diminishes the nutritional value. More importantly, the oxidation of fatty acids produces free radicals, which are believed to play a role in the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
It is important to store oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids in dark glass, tightly closed containers in the refrigerator or freezer. In addition, you should never heat these oils on the stove. Instead of sautéing your vegetables in flaxseed or walnut oil, make a salad dressing using these oils.
Do I need to worry about mercury content in fish?
Levels of mercury are generally highest in older, larger, predatory fish and marine mammals. Five of the most commonly eaten fish or shellfish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Avoid eating shark, swordfish, king Mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
How much do I need?
The American Heart Association recommends getting at least two servings per week of fish, particularly fatty fish. These would include salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and chunk light tuna. A serving is 3.5 ounces of cooked fish. Experts say any fish is better than no fish!