Exactly what are the benefits of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, what are the best food sources for it and how can its potential be maximized? Are all omega-3 oils created equal?
The physical and mental benefits derived from omega-3 oils have been well documented over the past few decades and many food products make claims to be rich in them. Understanding their importance (decreased health risks) and finding information on the recommended daily amounts (3-4 grams per day) is fairly simple. Deciphering and implementing the best food sources is a bit trickier.
The Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
According to the National Institute of Health, diets high in omega-3 can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Studies have shown the higher the intake, the lower the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked to lower risk of colon cancer. Subjects with Bi-polar Disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder whose diets included dietary omega-3 exhibited fewer symptoms of depression.
Top Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The sources of omega-3 can be found in a surprising variety of foods from seeds and nuts to vegetables and fish and they all vary in the number of milligrams delivered. A NutritionData ranking of foods containing omega-3 fatty acids showed, by far, the food delivering the highest number of milligrams is flax. Based on a 200-calorie serving, flax oil nets 12059mg of omega-3, while flaxseed measures 8543mg.
Fish oils are also touted as excellent sources of omega?3. True ? but which fish? Comparing just six species results in a 4985mg difference in available omega-3:
? Salmon, 7858mg
? Sardine oil, 5341mg
? Cod liver oil, 4375
? Roe (raw), 3405
? Mackerel (salted), 3367
? Atlantic wild salmon, 2843mg
Lesser-Known Sources of Omega-3?'s
Next in the omega-3 food categories are seeds and nuts. The same disparity found in fish can be seen among seeds and whether they are consumed whole or sprouted. Dried chia seeds for example contain 7164mg while sprouted radish seeds have 3358mg. Dried butternuts deliver more omega-3 than walnuts, with 2850 and 2776mg respectively.
Finally, herbs and spices also contain omega-3. Fresh basil and dried oregano, marjoram and ground cloves all contain between 2000 and 2500 mg, but are not often consumed in 200-calorie quantities, thus they are not often mentioned as significant dietary sources of omega-3.
Risks Associated with Omega-3 Diets
As with all dietary adjustments there are some risks. Because of their blood-thinning properties, high doses of omega-3 can lead to increased bleeding. People taking blood thinners or anti-coagulants should consult their physician before increasing their intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Diabetics and those suffering from schizophrenia may have problems converting the particular fats, ALA and DHA, which may cause other health-related issues.
Environmental hazards can also pose risks when consuming dietary omega-3s. Mercury contamination is a consideration when eating some species of fish and a 2003 report from The Environmental Working Group found that salmon from US farms contained the highest level of PCB?'s of any food in the food supply. PCB?'s and other environmental contaminants are found in fish oil supplements as well.
Eating meals prepared with the right amounts and types of omega-3 foods adds to a nutritionally balanced diet that can lower risks associated with heart disease, some cancers and depression. Being knowledgeable about the food sources and their associated levels of omega 3 can lead to a more efficient intake of this beneficial oil as well as more interesting and well-rounded daily menus.
Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids, which mean that it cannot be synthesized by the body and must result from the diet. The best source for this fatty acid is found in fish especially sardines, salmon and herring.