Leia Kedem: Fishing for answers on omega-3 fatty acids

Leia Kedem: Fishing for answers on omega-3 fatty acids

In the past few years, omega-3 fatty acids have become nutrition superstars in the arena of heart health. Fish oil supplements are probably best known for being rich in omega-3s — you can find capsules, pills and even gummies on the shelves.

But do you really need that supplement? Could you be putting your health at risk by taking one?

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids: We need them to survive, but our bodies can't make them. We have to get them from foods we eat (or more recently, supplements we take). If you have a history of heart disease, it would come as no surprise to me if your doctor recommended a fish oil supplement.

Omega-3s can protect your heart by normalizing heartbeat, regulating blood clot formation and lowering blood pressure and triglycerides.

There are a few different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. EPA and DHA are the most easily used by our bodies and are found in fish. Fish that are highest in EPA and DHA include salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Fish oil supplements are simply an extracted form of the EPA and DHA in fish.

For those who don't eat fish, milk and eggs are sometimes fortified with DHA, and there are also plant-based omega-3s. These are called ALA and can be found in walnuts, flaxseed, and soybean and canola oils. Although they aren't as potent as the ones found in fish, they are still worth consuming.

It's important to realize that some of the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3s happen because they are natural blood thinners. Fish oil is very concentrated in omega-3s, so taking supplements can set you up for bleeding issues if you're not careful. It is critical to check with your doctor before taking fish oil (whether you have heart disease or not), especially if you are on other blood-thinning medications or take anti-inflammatory pills regularly.

Fish oil supplements can certainly be a useful tool in combating heart disease, but they are not the end-all/be-all. There are other health benefits that go along with consuming fish, walnuts, and other dietary sources of omega-3s, so it is my preference that people get most of their omega-3s from foods.

You might wonder, "Well, how much fish should I eat to reap the benefits?"

According to the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, there is moderate evidence that two servings of seafood per week (4 ounces per serving) is associated with lower risk of death from heart disease. Some may have concerns over mercury in fish.

Albacore tuna should be limited to 6 ounces per week, while shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish should be avoided because they are typically high in mercury. This is especially important for young children and women who are pregnant or nursing. Generally, though, we can safely enjoy up to 12 ounces of various fish and shellfish per week that are lower in mercury (shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, whitefish, etc.).

Now, considering that we are landlocked in central Illinois, fish can be on the expensive side. Remember that canned and frozen fish are great alternatives that have just as many nutritional benefits as fresh.

Start adding more fish to your diet tonight by trying this Salmon and Asparagus Salad for a light summer meal. It comes from the University of Illinois Extension's Recipes for Diabetes website, takes about 5 minutes of prep time and 20 total minutes.

Salmon and Asparagus Salad

4 cups water

6 salmon fillets, 4 ounces each

1 tablespoon margarine

2 cups asparagus, cut in 1-inch pieces

3 cups cooked rice

1 cup thawed frozen peas

teaspoon salt

teaspoon pepper

Use water in a skillet to steam or poach salmon until it flakes with a fork. Remove salmon and discard water.

Heat margarine in skillet and add asparagus, cooking until tender.

Stir in rice, peas, salmon, salt and pepper. Cook about 1 minute, just to heat, stirring to prevent sticking.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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