By Stacey Bailey
Research has shown that consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, can benefit heart health.
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are called essential fatty acids. This means we need them for our bodies to work normally, and because they are not made in the body, we have to get them from our diet.
There are several types of omega-3 fats. The ones commonly called EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish and fish oil, while plant foods such as flaxseed and walnuts contain the type called ALA.
Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can lower the overall risk of heart disease. Eating fish once or twice a week also seems to significantly lower the risk of stroke by keeping blood thin and preventing plaque buildup in the arteries, because omega-3 fats are natural blood thinners.
“Omega-3 fats can also lower the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and, in high doses, decrease triglyceride levels,” said Dr. William Alton, a cardiologist in Solvang.
The best sources for omega-3 fats include large and small types of fish: salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, lake trout and albacore tuna. All of these are high in both EPA and DHA. Aim for two to three servings per week of about 3.5 ounces, equal to ¾ cup of flaked fish.
If you do not like fish, supplements may be a good alternative. Make sure to choose one containing both EPA and DHA. The recommended supplement amount is about 1 gram (1000 mg) per day. But some doctors say that eating fish is better. Fish at least twice a week is better than using supplements.
“I used to recommend fish oil supplements but recent studies have shown that they may not be as beneficial as we previously thought,” said Dr. William Heringer, a Solvang physician specializing in internal medicine. “It’s better to eat fish. Any kind of fish is fine, including a tuna fish sandwich once or twice a week.”
Be careful when eating swordfish, tilefish, shark, king mackerel, orange roughy, marlin and big-eye tuna, as they contain higher amounts of mercury and other toxins. It’s best to consume no more than seven ounces a week of these types of fish, and pregnant women should avoid them entirely.
Some farm-raised fish may have higher levels of contaminants and other additives. Farm-raised salmon, for example, often includes food coloring to enhance its appearance and make it look more like wild salmon. The diet of wild fish is what contributes to their high omega-3 content. They eat other smaller fish in their natural environment. Farmed fish usually are fed a processed food of pellets and fish oils.
Another source of omega-3 fats is plant foods. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, olive oil and canola oil all contain high amounts of ALA.
There are a few health precautions in increasing omega-3 fats in your diet. People who are taking blood thinners should not supplement with fish oil, as this could increase the risk of bleeding. Some people with diabetes may experience an increase in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements.
“If you’re taking prescription blood thinners or if you have diabetes, you should first consult with your doctor before adding fish oil supplements to your diet,” said Dr. Gustavo Dascanio, an internal medicine physician in Solvang.
Registered Dietitian Stacey Bailey is a clinical dietitian at Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospitals.