Omega-3 fats: what’s best: plant or fish sources?

RGBstock photo-Lusi

RGBstock photo-Lusi

Omega-3 fats are definitely a hotbed of research. Scientists are investigating health benefits and disease-fighting properties of these essential fats right through the life cycle from pregnancy to the elderly. From neurological development of the fetus and learning and behaviour of young children to mood disorders in adults, eye health, cardiovascular disease risk and even retaining your smarts as you age are all being linked to these fats.

Two omega-3s,  docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are found in cold water fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and tuna, have been getting most of the accolades in media reports.  These particular omega-3s are initially found in algae. Small fish eat the algae and then they may be eaten by larger fish, all becoming sources of  DHA and EPA.

Another omega-3, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), all too often gets left out of the spotlight when compared to the marine sources but it’s certainly no slouch in promoting good health.  ALA   is found in plant foods such as  walnuts, canola, soybeans, flax, chia and hemp seeds and dark leafy greens.  Camelina oil – a relatively new addition to the marketplace, is also a super source of ALA. (I’ll have more on this oil in my next post).

These plant sources, as with their marine kissin’ cousins, have an anti-inflammatory effect offering a range of protective actions. ALA may help to ward off autoimmune disease, asthma and even counter inflammation in the brain, decreasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

ALA is also linked to a defense against heart disease but may work differently than DHA and EPA.  While your body can convert ALA to DHA, it’s a very inefficient process and so you would need to consume a lot of ALA to reap the  DHA’s rewards.  That doesn’t mean  it need not be on a heart healthy menu.  Like fish sources, it’s also associated with better blood pressure readings as well.

An interesting note about ALA is that it may act somewhat of a gatekeeper and counter the pro-inflammatory effects of omega-6s. So by including ALA, you may obtain the advantages of omega-6s without the downsides.

This may be what’s behind the concern of some scientists in the field over our omega-6/ omega-3 ratio. It was thought that at one time that we ate equal amounts of omega-6s and omega-3s  but   now scientists speculate we consume  about 15 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.

So what does this mean in terms of your menu? It certainly doesn’t mean you should be counting the grams of each type of fat you’re consuming. (The stress of doing that would likely counter the benefits!)

But it does translate into having a few fatty fish meals per week and including some ALA-rich options on a daily basis.

Are you in need of improving  your omega-3 status? What foods can you add that would boost your intake? Please share in the comment section below.

Up next: Introducing camelina oil

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Categories: Research Roundup, Superfoods, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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