Most people have heard about the importance of getting in lots of omega-3 fatty acid rich foods in your overall diet, but the real question that impacts your health is, ”What is the ratio of omega-3 to other fatty acids in your diet?” Although there are many people that are not obtaining enough omega-3’s in their diet, there are also health care practitioners that are now seeing fatty acid imbalances due to the omega-3 supplement trend.
All of the cells and tissues of your body contain fat and the types and ratios of dietary fats you consume will determine, 1. the fat composition of your cells and 2. how well they function. A cell without a healthy membrane loses their ability to communicate with other cells and hold water and vital nutrients. Loss of cell to cell communication is thought to be one of the physiological events that leads to the growth of cancer. Your overall health is often linked to how healthy your cells are and how well they are functioning… this is often linked to your diet. For example, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is necessary for the cellular health of the brain and eyes and changes in DHA composition in infant nervous system tissue have been associated with certain negative health effects.
Many chronic diseases are linked to inflammation in the body. One of the critical pieces necessary to balance pro-inflammatory processes is the ratio of omega-3:omega-6 fatty acids and this includes considering other fatty acid sources such as saturated and monounsaturated fats. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids should be about 1:1-4:1 (the typical American diet is more like 20-30:1). The omega- 3 to omega-6 ratio, the types of omega-3 and omega-6 dietary sources you choose and other nutritional factors such as, vitamins C & E and quercetin all affect inflammation balance. (For more on omega-6 fatty acids, unhealthy fats and monounsaturated fats or mufas see my other website pages).
There’s one essential (meaning you need to get it in your diet as your body doesn’t produce it) omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid which is alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. ALA is the basic building block for the other omega-3’s like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and is found in plant sources such as, flaxseed, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. The body has difficulty converting ALA to EPA/DHA, which is important when balancing inflammation in the body, so primary sources of omega-3 fatty acids should be obtained from cold-water fatty fishes such as, wild salmon, sardines, fresh anchovies, herring, small halibut, and sable (black cod) which contain EPA and DHA.
3 servings of low mercury, cold-water fatty fish per week. Avoid large predatory fish (swordfish, tuna, tilefish, shark) and river fish and include other good sources of omega-3 types of fats such as, omega-3 organic eggs, ground & refrigerated flaxseed (flaxseed oil should always be refrigerated and never heated), walnuts and hemp seeds in your daily diet.
If you aren’t getting in 3 servings of omega-3 rich fish per week, consider supplementing with a good quality supplement. A discussion of dietary supplements is beyond the scope of this page, but in general, look for professional line supplements that have been quality tested by third party independent analysis to ensure stability and low levels of contaminants, the total EPA and DHA should not be over 40% of the total grams of fish oil due to high risk of oxidation and shouldn’t contain extra additives and oils. If you are a vegan there are quality vegan sourced omega-3 supplements, but also consider a quality fish oil supplement since they are produced from very small fish and the oil is far removed from the fish protein. Overall fatty acid balance needs to be considered when supplementing, especially if you are supplementing to manage a health condition.
This is a general guide to omega-3 fatty acid recommendations and may need to be modified based on your individual health and healing needs. In general, focusing on the correct balance of fats in your daily diet, including quality omega-3 fatty acid rich foods is a major step forward in your health and healing process.
Some References: The Institute of Functional Medicine,Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, 2004; Alschuler L. et al. The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 2010; The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Food as Medicine conference, 2012; S. Allen. RD, CCN, personal communication, 2013
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