Omega-3s and Fish

bear with fish 2I set out several days ago to write a blog about omega-3 fatty acids and fish that would be both interesting and informative, and of course written with my usual wit and personal anecdotes.  Turns out it’s not possible!  The topic has been written to death about and I have to admit that I couldn’t think of anything new or exciting to say about it.  But since I haven’t written about the topic on this blog before, and frankly got sick of staring at my computer screen trying to be witty, here goes nothing.

So you know by now that fish is good for you.   You might even know why: the omega-3 fatty acids.  But do you know why omega-3s are good for you?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids.  They are referred to as essential because they cannot be made in the body and must be obtained through the food you eat.  The omega-3s can further be divided into alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  These essential fatty acids are involved in the regulation of many processes in the body including blood pressure regulation, blood clot formation, blood lipids, the immune response and the inflammation response.  They are important for overall health as they are necessary for proper cell growth and functioning, especially in the brain.  They are also integral parts of cell membranes in the body.  They promote heart health and may reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.

As for sports performance, omega-3 s may have some benefits.  They are anti-inflammatory, so can help combat the inflammation that occurs with strenuous exercise .  They decrease blood clot formation and increase blood flow, meaning blood gets to working muscles more easily.  There is some research that suggests that the anti-inflammatory and vasodilation properties of omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial to athletic performance so it is important that athletes get the proper amount in their diet.

The recommendations for omega-3s are 1.6 g/day for men and 1.1 g/day for women.  If you eat 2-3 servings of fish per week you can meet these recs.  If you prefer not to eat fish, flaxseed oil and walnuts are some of the best vegetarian sources of omega-3, but not the same ones as fish.  Fish contains EPA and DHA whereas flaxseeds and walnuts contain only ALA.  Most of the health benefits seen are from EPA and DHA, and even though the body can convert some ALA to DHA and EPA, it doesn’t do so very efficiently.   So if you’re willing to eat fish that’s your best bet for meeting your omega-3 needs. If not, you might want to consider a supplement (fish oil or even flaxseed oil). I’m not one for taking supplements, but one of the few I do take fairly consistently is fish oil.  As always (or so it seems with nutrition), studies on the benefits of fish oil supplements are mixed. Some studies have found reduced triglyceride levels with fish oil supplementation, but most have not found a decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.  Since I have a hard time working fish into my diet twice a week (if only sushi wasn’t so expensive…) I use the supplement a few times per week. Remember- food first, supplements second.

Other considerations for fish: mercury content and mislabeling.  Certain types of fish are higher in mercury content that others. Steer clear of: swordfish, Chilean sea bass, grouper, mackerel, orange roughy, and shark as they tend to have the highest mercury content.  As for mislabeling, fish is one of the top mislabeled foods at the grocery store and in restaurants.  Recent figures have estimated that 1 in 3 fish sold is mislabeled! Some of it’s not intentional, fish often passes through multiple hands from the sea to the market, and I guess certain species look the same even to fish mongers.  Most common offenders are red snapper, halibut, grouper, cod, mahi mahi, sole, and wild salmon (sorry, it’s from a farm!)

Omega-3 Content of Select Foods

Food (4 oz fish) Grams of omega-3
Pacific herring 2.4
Mackerel 2.1
Atlantic salmon 2.1
Canned pink salmon 1.9
Trout 1.1
Canned white tuna 0.8
Canned light tuna 0.3
Canned sardines 0.7
Shrimp 0.4
Flaxseed oil (14 g) 8.4
Fish oil capsule (2) 7.2
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