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What You Should Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Posted Jun 05 2010 12:00am

I have a beef with all the marketing surrounding omega-3 fatty acids. Here I go….

Omega-3 fatty acids are indeed essential compounds involved in several important physiologic processes in our bodies. However, the idea that people need to be consuming supplements of omega-3 fatty acids because all our diets are devoid of them is, in large part, grossly exaggerated by companies marketing their products:

Dr. Robert Bonow, past president of the American Heart Association and co-director of the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, attempted to temper the enthusiasm by pointing out that while advising patients to increase consumption of fish oil may be “good advice,” it should be tempered by adding the caveat that the data are “strongest in those with established heart disease … with the principal benefit being a reduction in serious rhythm problems. (Source)

The Federal Drug Administration’s standing is a “qualified health claim” that the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may prevent coronary heart disease . The language in the release for the claim is that research on omega-3 fatty acids is “supportive but not conclusive.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) states that a healthy individual should consume two 3.5 oz servings of fish each week . The AHA also advises against high intake of omega-3 supplements such as capsules as they can increase risk of bleeding. In their official release , the AHA states that “large-scale epidemiological studies suggest that individuals at risk for CHD benefit from the consumption of plant- and marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids, although the ideal intakes presently are unclear”. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The available evidence indicates that 0.5 to 0.6%E alpha-linolenic acid per day corresponds to the prevention of deficiency symptoms… Adult males and non-pregnant/non-lactating adult females 0.250 g/day of EPA plus DHA is recommended, with insufficient evidence to set a specific minimum intake of either EPA or DHA alone; both should be consumed. For adult pregnant and lactating females, the minimum intake for optimal adult health and fetal and infant development is 0.3 g/d EPA+DHA, of which at least 0.2 g/d should be DHA“. Most supplements I have seen contain more than twice these amounts in one capsule.

Finally, there is growing interest in the nutritional differences of grass-fed beef (typically organic) versus grain-fed beef (conventional). Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid composition and antioxidant content of beef. Grass-based diets have been shown to enhance total conjugated linoleic acid (C18:2) isomers, trans vaccenic acid (C18:1 t11), a precursor to CLA, and omega-3 fatty acids on a g/g fat basis. So, not all beef is created equal when it comes to fatty acids. I have not heard any companies hawking omega-3 products including this in their spiel.

Bottom lines: The data on omega-3′s and coronary heart disease is convincing, but question any product sporting outlandish claims about omega-3′s as a panacea or something you should take with your multivitamin. If you are not a vegetarian or vegan, why not just following the AHA guidelines and eat fish twice a week? If you are a vegetarian, vegan or meat eater that doesn’t eat fish, watch out for shady fish oil supplements tainted with toxins and talk to your doctor about what and how much you take.

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