When I was a kid, we never had fancy names for fat in my house. We just called it butter or oil. It's different nowadays, and all these fancy names don't just belong to scientists anymore. They are household words. Good example: Omega-3 fatty acids. A few weeks ago, I lead a tour of one of my local Whole Foods Markets for a group of school children. When we arrived at the seafood department, a team member held up a large whole fish and 8-year old Eddie wanted to know how many Omega-3's the big fish had!
Well, little Eddie had it right! Fish can be a wonderful source of a type of fat called Omega-3's, which happen to be good for our brain, nervous system and heart. But as you will see, fish is not the only source.
Omega-3 fatty acid is one type of polyunsaturated fat that is found in oily fish (like salmon and sardines), flax seeds (especially flax seed oil) and, to a lesser degree, in eggs (from chickens fed Omega-3s), walnuts (which also have high Omega-6's), and some leafy green vegetables. Another type of polyunsaturated fat is called Omega-6 fatty acid. You find it in corn, sunflower, safflower and soy. Both Omega-3s and Omega-6s are considered "essential fatty acids" and we need to get them from food sources because our bodies don't make them internally.
Many processed foods and vegetable oils contain high amounts of Omega-6's and very little Omega-3's. Omega-3's and Omega-6's are both "good" fats but a high Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio promotes inflammation and other imbalances that can lead to disease. The ratio found in a typical Western diet is about 10:1 to 20:1, whereas the recommended ratio is 2:1 to 4:1. So, lowering our intake of Omega-6's might be a wise way to reduce our risk of chronic diseases. To do this, choose olive, canola and peanut oil for cooking, along with real butter and if you like it, a bit of coconut oil. Cut way back on overly-processed packaged foods and typical store-bought oils made from refined vegetable sources such as soybean and cottonseed.
Then, increase your intake of Omega-3's. Here are some ideas for that:
- Nix the peanuts and go for the walnuts. Try a couple of tablespoons on a salad, over oatmeal, sprinkled over sautéed or steamed veggies, or added to chicken or tuna salad.
- Look for free range eggs that say Omega-3's right on the label. The chickens are fed a diet with Omega-3's - usually flaxseed.
- Have two or three servings a week of an "oily" fish such as sardines, salmon, tuna, herring or sea bass.
- Add a little ground flax to your diet. You can do this by adding a tablespoon to smoothies or cooked cereal. Word of caution: raw ground flax can cause stomach distress for some people. Adding the flax to cooked cereal, a smoothie or fruit juice and letting it sit a little will soften it and make it easier to digest. Flax is a good source of fiber, too.
- Try some of our delicious flax or hemp-fortified waffles, muffins and breads available in our freezer section.
- Fortify your homemade salad dressing with a tablespoon or two of organic flaxseed oil.
Microalgae in supplement form appear to be the most promising alternative plant source of omega-3 fatty acids for vegetarians. Several gelatin-free brands are available in our Whole Body department.
Many people opt to take fish oil or flax oil capsules, and some doctors are now recommending fish oil supplements. According to the Mayo Clinic, several studies have shown benefit from fish or fish oil for benefitting heart health. Always check with your doctor before beginning a supplement that contains Omega-3s. This is especially important if you are taking blood thinners. And remember that flaxseed oil, walnut oil and other oils that are high in polyunsaturated fat should be used raw on salads or drizzled on bread or grains, used in smoothies, etc. Cooking, such as frying and sautéing, damages these delicate and sensitive oils.
Here's a simple recipe I make often that tastes great and provides Omega-3's: Mix a can of black beans (drained and rinsed) with a small chopped yellow pepper, 1 cup chopped carrots, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro or parsley, 2 chopped scallions and 1/3 cup chopped walnuts. Toss with a blend of 2 tablespoons flaxseed oil, 3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, 2 tablespoons reduced sodium tamari and 2-3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard. This will serve 2-4 people.
Check out these recipes for more ways to boost Omega-3's:
Wild King Salmon with Dried Cherries and Smoked Almond Beurre Noisette
Seared Tuna with Sautéed Greens
Arugula Salad with Manchego and Walnuts
Hemp Seed Apricot Snack Chews
Gluten-Free Flaxseed Muffins
Have any thoughts on good ways to get more Omega-3's or any favorite recipes to share? I'd love to hear!