Good Fats: Omega-3 and the Health Consumer
By Sita Huber, BHsc (Nutritional Medicine)
(Online Nutritionist for Naturally Better Kids)
Many of us are being exposed to a lot of information in the market place regarding Omega-3 fats. We may be told by a news article, a TV show or even a friend to eat more fish, take fish oil, flaxseed oil, ground linseed or something else new. Omega-3’s are now even added to and advertised in foods such as milk, yogurt and some cereals.
There are different approaches to increasing Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet but how do you know which one is right for you?
What’s So Good about Good Fats?
Omega-3’s are essential nutrients and without them our bodies and our minds will not function to their best ability.(Pizzorno and Murray, 1998)
Western diets are generally low in Omega-3 fat levels due to poor food choices and lack of awareness about their dietary importance. Lack of these fats can greatly interfere with our ability to achieve optimal health and may lead to higher disease risk. (Simopoulos,2000)
We need to look at fats beyond just their caloric content (sorry Jenny Craig) and consider the wide impact on more of a biological level. Fats are stored in each of our cells and are essential to healthy cellular communication. This means that a balance of healthy fats will impact the functioning of hormones, the immune system and energy cycles. (Mantozioris et al, 1995; Mori et al, 1999) Cells are sensitive and amazing little things and can change for the better, or worse, in response to the biochemical (aka nutritional) environment.
Let’s give our bodies what they need!! Common sources of Omega-3 fats in our diet can include cod liver oil, linseed oil, tuna, salmon, cod and sardines (Oseiki, 2004).
Flaxseed oil (also known as linseed oil) is a rich source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Although ALA is technically an inactive form of Omega-3, the body converts it through a series of steps involving enzyme processes and it is metabolised to the active forms of Omega-3; Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and Docosaohexanoic acid (DHA). There are varying opinions regarding the efficiency of the conversion of ALA from Flaxseed Oil into EPA/DHA, however, it is generally accepted that at higher concentrations ALA is more efficiently converted (fish oil is already active). (Kohlmeier, 2003)
Ground flaxseed (as opposed to the oil) is commonly used as a source of Omega-3. Ground flaxseed is a great source of fibre and lignans and these nutrients can help keep the bowel regular, increase healthy cholesterol and balance hormone levels. However, ground flaxseed is not a significant source of pure Omega-3 and you would have to eat a lot of it to get a good dose! (Kohlmeier, 2003))
So in summary, while flaxseeds can contribute to achieving overall daily requirements and are good for you in many other ways, if a therapeutic level of Omega-3 is needed then the oil is better as it is more concentrated in Omega-3 .
Tips for using and storing flaxseed oil and ground flaxseed include:
- Flaxseed oil should never be heated (as in cooking) as the “unsaturated” carbon chains are fragile and become damaged very easily.
- Flaxseed oil and ground flaxseed should be stored in the refrigerator, kept in an airtight container, used within 2-4 weeks of opening and must not be exposed to excessive light or oxygen.
- You can buy whole flaxseeds and grind these in a coffee grinder in small portions to maintain freshness.
- Always purchase flaxseed oil in a dark, opaque bottle and pour onto cold or warm food only.
- Rancid flaxseed oil has the potential to cause unhealthy effects so discard of it if unsure.
Purchasing Flaxseed Oil
The decision to buy organically grown or “chemical free” flaxseed oils does not impact the therapeutic activity of the oil. There are also golden or brown flaxseeds which have slightly different tastes but have no significant difference in Omega-3 activity.
The Fish Oil Plethora
Fish oil is an excellent source of Omega-3 oils that are readily metabolised and used by the body. (Kohlmeier, 2003) Modern commercial fish oils are abundant in the market place and are readily available.
However, the assortment of fish oils available to choose from is enough to warrant seeking a degree from Fish Oil University (if only there was one) just to get your head around the plethora of information and choice. So how do you know which one is right for you?
There is an abundance of sound science and thought behind the intricacies of fish oil. The important things for consumers to consider involve the source of the oil (wild or farmed fish and which species), harvesting and extraction methods, the refining process, storage, cost, availability and of course therapeutic effectiveness. There is undoubtedly a lot to think about here.
My strategy, and first piece of advice to the consumer, is to find a trusted brand. A good company will have done the research and produce a product that has sound science and claims backing its integrity. Practitioner brands, that are available through Natural Medicine Practitioners, score the highest points in my books as they consistently delivered premium products. It is also important to note that some more well known retail brands found on shelves in health food stores may also have access to the same manufacturing facilities and ingredients as the Practitioner brands. Remember that the most heavily advertised and well known brands are not necessarily the best ones. What is written on a label is often more marketing than health advice and this can cause consumers a lot of unnecessary confusion.
Most fish oils have the same general activity on the Omega-3 side of things, however, some variability between products can include the delivery method (capsule, capsule type, liquid, concentrate), concentration and/or strength of the oil, fish type the oil was sourced from, the purification processes used and type and number of additives such as colours and flavours.
Fish Oils Unmasked
Capsule type-Regular or Reflux-free
Regular fish oil capsules will dissolve in the stomach to be digested as would food. These can cause problems for some people who have reduced ability to digest fats for various reasons (this could be due a Gall Bladder removal/issue or just poor digestive function). The undigested fish oil can cause an unpleasant fishy reflux.
Reflux-free capsules are enterically coated and will pass further down the gut before dissolving which will reduce the incidence of reflux or fishy after taste. Consider making your own “enteric coating” by storing your fish oil capsules in the freezer. The capsule will naturally take longer to dissolve.
Most standard fish oil capsules are 1000mg and contain 180mg EPA and 120mg DHA. As mentioned above, some fish oils can be concentrated, meaning that the active ingredients, EPA and DHA are at a higher level per 1000mg. The concentrated fish oils presently on the market generally provide 300mg EPA and 200mg DHA, nearly double the strength of one standard capsule. This is great for consumers who struggle to take a large quantity of capsules; however, it may be less cost effective.
Liquid fish oils are by far the most economical as you do not have to pay the manufacturer to go through the intricate process of putting the oils into capsules. If you are ok with the oily texture of a spoonful of olive oil and feel the slight fishy taste won’t throw you, then liquid supplements will work well. It is also a quick way to get the entire dose required in one go.
As with concentrated capsules these oils are stronger in EPA/DHA per ml than typical oils. It is always good when buying these to ask how many capsules is equivalent to a teaspoon (5mL).
All fish oils have generally the same activity of Omega-3. There has been a lot of marketing that aims to persuade consumers to believe Salmon oil is more beneficial, however, it is really neither better nor worse. The relevance of whether you buy Salmon oil or some other fish (generally sardines and small fish are used) really depends on where the fish is sourced from and how you feel about the environmental impacts of the harvesting source (i.e. farmed or wild caught, if farmed how so, a species high on the food chain that may be bio-accumulating other substances, etc).
Wild Alaskan Salmon could very well be less exposed to toxins in its natural life cycle and some brands will identify this type is used.
Remember to consider why you are really purchasing a particular Fish Oil and if you are getting what you think you are.
The main thing to consider here is what is in the flavouring, and again, a trusted brand is key. Flavouring can certainly help to make fish oils more palatable, particularly with liquids. It is however, important to avoid being given unwanted substances in the pursuit of a nice flavour.
The Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) has set guidelines for all fish oils manufactured and sold in Australia to meet a number of requirements regarding allowable levels of trace toxic substances. Whether a company abides by this strictly is up to the TGA to regulate and the said company to comply with. There are some companies, including both practitioner and retail brands, that adhere to their own higher standards of allowable levels of toxins. These products therefore contain less toxins that what is generally acceptable, which is very good for the consumer.
The potential presence of toxic substances may well be the most important thing to consider as a consumer regarding fish oils. In particular during pregnancy and for breastfeeding women, for children’s dietary supplementation and for individuals being treated for a nervous system disorders (such as depression and anxiety). (Pizzorno and Murray, 1998),
DHA and Kids
The DHA in Omega-3 in particular plays a crucial role in the growth and development of the central nervous system. It is highly concentrated in the brain and is particularly essential for neural and visual development during the first six months of life. Deficiency of DHA in children is associated with ADHD, learning, health and sleep problems. (Cunnane et al, 2000; Birch et al, 2000; Burgess et al 2000)
Supplementation with DHA may offer benefits to the infant during pregnancy as well as in infancy. As DHA is passed through to the infant in breast milk supplementation to the mother will benefit the child, however, DHA in infant formulas is generally lacking. (Birch et al, 2000)
Fish oil supplements are available that are more concentrated in DHA than EPA and are therefore more specific for nervous system conditions and brain development.
For dosing requirements it is important to ask for qualified advice from a Natural Health Practitioner.
Now that you are equipped with all the relevant information on Omega-3 supplements it is time to consider whether you and your family are going to be able to eat adequate amounts of Omega-3 rich foods or would you benefit from a supplement such as Flaxseed Oil or Fish Oil.
Supplementation can fill a gap in the diet to prevent deficiency or it can enhance and support the treatment of a wide range of conditions if applied appropriately. It really depends on your individual situation and your specific needs.
Sita is available for online consultations – by email or phone. You can arrange a consult by sending an email – for more details click here.
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