I recently wrote about the importance of the omega-3 fish oils (EPA and DHA) in our diets and how they can reduce the
risk of heart disease and stroke.
There are other omega-3 fatty acids we need in our
diets as well. They come from plant foods and also help decrease our risk of chronic
diseases and appear to
keep us healthy just like the fish oils.
Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids (called linolenic acid) are found in vegetable oils such as canola, flaxseed and
olive oils, and in walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, wheat germ and soybeans. Regular consumption of these omega-3 fatty
acids helps prevent blood clots, protects against irregular heartbeats and lowers blood pressure.
All omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA from fish, are called essential fatty acids," which means they can't be
made in the body, so we must get them from foods.
Omega-3s are essential for normal growth and development, especially in the eyes and brain. Our bodies can make small
amounts of EPA and DHA from linolenic acid, or plant sources of omega-3s, but it can't make linolenic acid from DHA or
Vegetarians who don't eat fish will still get the EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids their bodies need to stay healthy
just by eating the right plant foods. And nonvegetarians still need to include the plant sources listed above to get
the omega-3 linolenic acid in their diet.
Many people don't get enough omega-3s in their diets, and the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids can
be out of balance. The recommended ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 6 to 1. The current ratio many of us take in is
15-20 to 1. The reason we need to have a better balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is because of what they
do in our bodies: omega-6s increase the inflammation processes, whereas omega-3s decrease inflammation throughout the
body. Inflammation is considered a prime factor in chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure,diabetes and stroke. The ratio imbalance has thrown our bodies into inflammation overload.
Omega-6s are found in many processed and restaurant foods because they are usually cheaper than omega-3 sources of
oils, tend to keep longer without going rancid and have a higher smoking point (smoke begins at higher cooking
temperature than omega-3 oils).
To obtain sufficient intakes and the right balance, most of us need to eat more fish and switch out corn and safflower
oils with olive and canola oils when we cook, and eat some almonds or walnuts each day. Our ancestors naturally ate
more plant sources of omega-3s and fish and less sources of omega-6s (vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower
and cottonseed, poultry, meats and eggs). Now, we eat a much higher ratio of omega-6s than omega-3s, mainly because
omega-6s are so widely used by the food industry.
It is not recommended to take linolenic acid supplementation, as researchers don't know if they react the same in our
bodies as those from foods. The best way to get omega-3s into your diet is to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and
whole grains, cook with canola or olive oils, eat fish two times per week and cut down on processed foods.
Jeanine Justice has 20 years of experience in nutrition. She is currently the coordinator for Healthy Lifestyle La
Plata Coalition. Reach her at jeanine@swcommunity foundation.org.