Last week we focused on Super Foods with monounsaturated fat, and this week we’re going to learn about two Super Foods that are stars in the “omega-3 fats” category: salmon and flax. Salmon is the straight-up super food while flax sits in the “honorable mention” category. Our brains and hearts NEED omega-3s, and most American’s aren’t getting enough. This is a big deal worth a little of your time, especially moms of young children.
What Is an Omega-3 Fat?
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock and don’t watch the news (like me!), you might not have heard this term a zillion times in the last few years. Poor Americans, we’re generally deficient in omega-3 fats, mostly because much of our processed foods contain omega-6 fats, not evil in their own right, but vastly overeaten, which throws us out of balance. Our bodies want a proper balance between these two polyunsaturated fats. There’s a lot of different ratios given, so I’ll just leave it at that and leave out the numbers. UPDATE: More on the omega-3/omega-6 balance!
Omega-3s are called “essential” fats because our bodies cannot manufacture them. We must eat them.
The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, DHA and EPA (I’ll spare you the longer terms!). You’ll recognize DHA and EPA from formula packages and children’s supplements; they’re found in high concentration in the fatty parts of fish (think fish oil supplements). ALA is less helpful, but can be turned into DHA and EPA in your body (but I’m not sure how that works, or if it works with all sources of ALA). This article says that very little ALA (1%) actually becomes the others. DHA and EPA are in the news right now for being major brain foods, especially for developing brains – pre-birth and post-birth. They are a major component of human breast milk, the perfect human food.
Health Benefits of Omega-3s:
- **Lowers cholesterol and triglycerides
- **Lowers high blood pressure
- **Protects against heart disease, stroke
- Diabetes treatment
- Weight loss
- Reduces inflammation from arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Prevents osteoporosis (EPA)
- Lowers risk for depression
- Reduces risk for ADHD (when part of early diet)
- Improves symptoms of Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis (especially ALA)
- Treats asthma
- Improves eye health (EPA and DHA)
- Woman stuff: menstrual pain and menopause
- Reduced risk of colon, prostate and breast cancer
This is why my husband allows me to serve fish once a week, even though he HATES it! Tonight I smothered it in a very spicy jalapeno cheese sauce. He says, “Sauce is great, rice is great…there’s still fish in there, and that’s terrible.” Poor guy. I give him major props for choking tilapia down once a week to improve his health!! (I can’t get him to eat salmon yet…) Update: He’ll now eat this spicy fish seasoning. Yay!
Nutritional and Health Benefits of Salmon
- Extremely high omega-3s (DHA and EPA especially), so…
- …All the Omega-3 benefits from above TO THE HILT!
- High protein
- Very good source of selenium, niacin and vitamin B12
- Good source of phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin B6
- Lowers risk of Leukemia, Multiple Myeloma, and Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
Why “Wild” Salmon? How to Buy Safe Salmon…see my Sustainable Seafood post for this important information!
Nutritional and Health Benefits of Flaxseeds:
- high in most of the B vitamins, magnesium, and manganese
- Omega 3: ALA
- HIGH in fiber (both soluble and insoluble)
- Protein, low carb
- Antioxidants (cancer-fighters)
- Lignans (balance female hormones)
- thiamin, riboflavin, niacin
How all this can improve your health:
- See above for omega-3 benefits (from ALA in flax)
- Reduces constipation (seeds only)
- Boosts immunity
- Particularly noted for female health: fewer PMS symptoms, hot flashes in menopause
Keep in mind that there are two ways to consume flax: seeds and oil (also known as linseed oil). The seeds have all the health benefits, but the oil doesn’t have any fiber. Some of the omega-3 benefits are questionable in flax, because it has such a concentration of ALA and very little DHA and EPA, the heavy hitters. Because of this, fish oil (as a supplement – find the best one HERE) or fish is the better source of omega-3s.
Safety Concerns with Flax
I was surprised at how many side effects there are to flax, especially the oil (seemed to be higher in incidence of side effects)!
- Oil not recommended during pregnancy – inhibits development of baby’s reproductive system
- Flatulence, loose stools
- Bowel obstruction
- Some research shows increased risk of breast and prostate cancer (even though omega-3s generally reduce that risk!)
- Seeds only: general high fiber side effects like bloating, indigestion, constipation (if you don’t drink enough water), nausea.
Yikes! It seems flax is definitely an item to be handled with care. I’m beginning to reassess how much I want to bother with this particular omega-3. It’s up for discussion!
Practical Ways to Increase Omega-3s
- Eat more fish, especially salmon (once a week is great!) – How to Buy Salmon Safely
- Add flax to your diet (oil or seeds) – try this Banana Flax Muffins Recipe
- Eat more
- Ask your doctor about fish oil supplements (see below)
My “Eat More Fish” Tip
The only tip I have that isn’t included in the above posts is one way I try to eat more fish: since my husband hates fish I try to almost always order it when given the opportunity at a restaurant. You may not want to do this with salmon, unfortunately, unless you have the nerve to ask your server every time: “Where is this fish caught?”
Until then, you can always consider making an “eat every week” list in your meal plan that includes fish, broth, beans, a meatless meal, and other items of importance for your family (beef, chicken, pasta, salad, eggs, etc.).
An Important Note about Supplements:
“There is something about whole food that when it goes into the body it’s more than 90% absorbed, while [with] a supplement you absorb only about 50%,” says Sandon.
Moreover, says Sandon, because the components of different foods work together, they may offer a more complete and balanced source of nutrients.
“It could be something more than just the omega-3s in fish that make it so healthy,” says Sandon. “It could be the amino acids that provide benefits we are not going to see in fish-oil supplements alone.”
And if you’re thinking fish-oil capsules will help you avoid the contamination risks of fresh fish, think again. Because supplements are not regulated in the U.S., Sandon says, some may contain concentrated amounts of the same toxins found in fresh fish. And because the oil is so concentrated, the supplements can also produce an unpleasant body odor.
More important, experts say, there is a danger of overdosing on fish-oil supplements, particularly if you take more than the recommended amount. Doing so can increase your risk of bleeding or bruising. This isn’t likely to happen when you get your intake from foods.
The one-time fish oil supplements can really help is if you need to reduce your levels of triglycerides, a dangerous blood fat linked to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that people with extremely high triglycerides get 2 to 4 daily grams of omega-3s (containing EPA and DHA) in capsules — but only in consultation with their doctors.
“The key here is to never take these supplements without your doctor’s consent,” says Magee. “This is not something you want to fool with on your own.”
From Web MD
More info about “How to Use and Store Flax Seeds and Oil“.
Other Super Food Health Benefits:
- Chicken Stock/Broth
- Cruciferous Vegetables
- Garlic and Onions
Peppers(recipe no longer available)
- Super Fruits