Dietitian's Mailbag #7: OMG O-mega

OMG?  More like O-M-3!  This week, Ted T. writes:

I understand that omega-3 fatty acids are good for me, but what are they?  What are the best food sources?

Ah, omega three fatty acids. You hear about them in the news, see them on medical shows, and hear about them from your mom. And there's a reason for that: omega-3s are good for you - really good, actually. And if you think salmon's the only way to get them, keep reading.

Just what are omega-3s?

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of complex meaning behind the name "omega-3." In fact, omega-3s get their name from their unique chemical structure. But unless you're a chemistry nerd who wants to geek out with me, I won’t bore you with talk of location of double bonds and counting of carbon atoms.

Simply put, omega-3 fatty acids are an important type of dietary fat. We’ve all heard of healthy unsaturated fats, right? Well, fun fact—all “omega” fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats can be one of two kinds: monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Omega-3s are in the polyunsaturated camp (yes, chem nerds, it’s because there is more than one double bond).

Why do we need omega-3s?

In case you hadn't realized it, our human bodies are pretty fancy. Seriously. We’re able to metabolize some foods in such a way that we make nutrients that we need. But, the catch is, we can’t do it for all nutrients. There are some that we have to obtain through diet, and omega-3s are an example of this. They are also known as essential fatty acids, because it is essential that we get them through dietary sources.

Not only are they essential, but there are a lot of health benefits associated with intake of these fats. For starters, omega-3s are involved in important functions in the body, including blood clotting, and forming cell membranes in the brain. (But wait, there's more!) Research suggests that omega-3s have a whole host of positive effects on the heart. And that may go for both healthy people and those at high risk of cardiovascular disease. We’re talking about decreasing triglyceride levels, slowing formation of artery plaque, and even lowering blood pressure a bit. There’s even evidence to support that pregnant women and breastfeeding moms keep an eye on their intake for healthy eye and brain development for their babies.

What should I eat to get my omega-3s? And how much?

While salmon is the first thing that comes to mind for many, there are some other great sources of omega-3s, including: flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oilchia seeds, soybeans, kidney beans, and other cold-water oily fish (anchovies, sardines, and tuna).

omega-3s

But before we get into how much we need in our diets, a quick pause for some more fancy-shmancy scientific nomenclature. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, two of which are particularly linked to health benefits: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most medical professionals recommend 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA per day for healthy individuals. For reference, 8 oz of fish per week averages out to about 250 mg per day. Easy!

FYI, you can get your EPA and DHA fix from EAT Club next week during our Catch of the Day menu event. Check out the Pesto Herb Salmon and the Olive Oil Poached Salmon Salad for a healthy dose of omega-3s.

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Shira Katz, M.S., R.D. is the former EAT Club Staff Dietitian
You can follow Shira on Twitter@SunnySideHealth