OMEGA-3 Oils

Fall 2003 CSANews Issue 48  |  Posted date : Apr 25, 2007.Back to list

Just about everything these days is touted as fat free. Take a stroll down the supermarket aisles and count the number of products that brightly claim to be low- or no-fat. Across the continent, fast-food operations are scrambling to jump on the low-fat bandwagon. Even the local soft-serve ice cream parlour boasts a sign declaring ice milk to be 95 per cent fat free.

And there's a good reason for this - for years, Canada has been dubbed a fat nation. In fact, 30 per cent of our population is said to be clinically obese, with the Canadian Medical Association calling obesity a national epidemic. But recent studies show that in our race to cut fat from our diets, we may be compromising our health, because all fats, it seems, are not created equal. Some fats are considered 'good oils,' essential to physical and mental well-being. Omega-3 fats are at the top of the good oils list, boasting a host of health-giving actions that you can't afford to miss.

Building Blocks of Good Health
Omega-3 oils (also known as omega-3 fatty acids or essential fatty acids - EFAs) are polyunsaturated fatty acids essential to human nutrition. They are significant structural components of the cell membranes of tissues throughout the body, especially in the brain and retina.

Interest in omega-3 fats began around 30 years ago, when it was discovered that the oils play a significant part in overall health. Today, several thousand scientific papers document the benefits of these oils, with evidence supporting their role in the prevention and modulation of dozens of diseases from coronary heart disease and stroke, to certain cancers, allergies and even arthritis.

Our bodies do not produce omega-3s. We must eat food rich in essential fatty acids to reap the benefits. But modern diets are frighteningly poor in these good oils, due in part to bad food choices, the current low-fat craze and industry reliance on 'bad' fats in manufactured food products.

Some of the best sources of omega-3s are fish, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, flax and hemp seeds and oils, eggs, and grass-fed game and beef - things of which most people don't get enough.

Finding a Healthy Balance
To compound the situation, the benefits of the omega-3 oils we are consuming are essentially nullified by the amount of omega-6 oils we eat. The shift in dietary consumption to omega-6 oils over omega-3 oils has been well documented over the last 100 years. Omega-6 oils include canola, corn, safflower, sunflower and soy. While both omega-3 and omega-6 oils are important parts of a good diet, an imbalance of dietary omega-6 oils can actually lead to a worsening of inflammatory and degenerative diseases.

Experts suggest that omega-6 and omega-3 oils be consumed in a ratio of 1:1. However, studies indicate that our current intake is grossly imbalanced at a ratio of 20:1 – and in some cases, 50:1 - in favour of omega-6 oils. To offset this imbalance, it is necessary to increase omega-3 intake while replacing omega-6 oils with beneficial substitutes such as cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and organic butter.

Cardiovascular Benefits
Perhaps the strongest evidence supporting the benefits of omega-3s is in research on coronary heart disease. Studies on humans, animals and tissue cultures have revealed an inverse relationship between the amount of omega-3 fats in the diet and the occurrence of heart disease and its many implications.

Omega-3s are said to prevent heart disease through anti-inflammatory properties, the prevention of arrhythmias (ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation), and by inhibiting atherosclerosis, among other things.

In one study in which omega-3 fatty acid intake was increased, overall mortality rate was decreased by 29 per cent among participants. In another, men who increased their fish consumption to once a week had a 70 per cent lower likelihood of cardiac arrest.

Omega-3s also help prevent thrombosis (the tendency to form blood clots), a major complication of coro nary atherosclerosis that can lead to heart attacks. The oils have been shown to increase bleeding time and decrease the stickiness of the platelets, decreasing the chance of blood clot development. In addition, atherosclerotic plaque formation may be lessened.

Arthritis Relief
Of great interest to seniors is the connection between omega-3s and arthritis relief. Omega-3s offer anti-inflammatory properties without all the side-effects of over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications.

Among the oldest-known afflictions, arthritis can affect virtually every part of the body, with effects ranging from slight pain, stiffness and swelling of the joints, to crippling disability. Most sufferers have varying degrees of more than one type of arthritis (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout).

Studies conclude that arthritics suffer from a 40 per cent deficiency in essential fatty acids compared to non-sufferers in North America, and a 100 per cent deficiency compared to people from non-industrialized nations whose diets are rich in omega-3 fats.

It is the prostaglandins in the body that regulate the inflammatory response. These prostaglandins are produced from dietary ingestion of healthful omega-3 fats, such as flaxseed oil and deep-water fish oil. A diet rich in omega-6 oils, such as safflower, soy, corn and sunflower, as well as in non-grass-fed animal meats, causes the production of inflammatory prostaglandins, worsening the symptoms of arthritis.

In addition to the anti-inflammatory action of omega-3s, it is also believed that these oils modulate the immune system, suppressing the attack on bones, cartilage and other bodily tissues. This immune-suppressing action is said to decrease the progression of arthritis and the degeneration of joints.

While the causes of arthritis are undoubtedly multifactorial, part of the problem can be traced to a deficiency of omega-3 fats. This can be remedied by decreasing the amount of inflammatory omega-6 oils, as well as non-grass-fed animal meats, and increasing the amount of omega-3 oils through dietary or supplementary sources. You need very little omega-3 oils to benefit from their health-giving properties - only five to seven grams a day - the equivalent of one to two tablespoons!

The Wisdom of Traditional Diet
The role of omega-3 fats in cardiac fitness first became apparent in the study of the health status of Greenland Eskimos whose traditional diets were very high in marine fats from seals, whales and fish, and who showed a low incidence of coronary heart disease. Research proved that the indigenous diet contained large quantities of essential fatty acids - indicating a direct link between omega-3 oils and good heart health.

In our race to cut fat from our diets, we may be compromising our health.

Battling Depression
New research indicates that omega-3 oils may be instrumental in battling depression, including the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder. This is exciting news, given the fact that there are few effective treatments for this disease.

Researchers noted significantly lower levels of omega-3s in the red blood cell membranes of patients suffering from depression. In one study published in the May 1999 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry involving 30 manic-depressives, Andrew Stoll, M.D. and colleagues reported a marked improvement in symptoms in 64 per cent of the participants who took 10 grams of fish oil a day over a four-month period, as opposed to the 19 per cent given placebos.

It is believed that increased consumption of omega-3 oils helps those suffering from depression because cell membranes contain high percentages of these oils. It has been theorized that increasing the omega-3 levels makes it easier for serotonin - a chemical that carries messages from one brain cell to another - to pass through cell membranes.

It is also believed that the imbalance in omega-3 fats in our modern diet may explain why depression has reached near-epidemic proportions in our country. In our battle of the bulge, we may have forsaken the mind.

Best Sources
Fish: One of the best sources of omega-3 oils is fish. But reports on mercury contamination and other toxins found in fish mean that consumers should be wary of regular consumption.

To avoid the pitfalls of contaminated fish, stick to those that are considered safe, such as summer, flounder, wild Pacific salmon, croaker, sardines, haddock and tilapia. To reap the benefits of omega-3s, increase 'safe' fish consumption to once or twice weekly.

For those who do not like seafood or for seniors on the go who prefer the convenience of supplements, fish-oil capsules are the best bet. There are several grades of fish oil, with prices varying accordingly: cod liver oil is the least pure and the cheapest and is not recommended for supplementation; health-grade fish oil, usually deep-water salmon, is a purer form and is available through pharmacies and supermarkets (Swiss is one good brand); pharmaceutical-grade fish oil is the purest and most potent, and is the only one recommended for high-dose therapy (more than four to six capsules a day).

Dosage for fish oils is about one tablespoon a day (the equivalent of four to six capsules). (For specific higher-dose therapies, see Barry Spears' book, The Omega Rx Zone.)

If you experience problems with belching after taking fish oil, you may want to consider taking the supplements on an empty stomach. It is also advisable to take a vitamin E supplement (400 IU) along with fish-oil capsules to help protect the fat from oxidizing.

Although refrigeration of fish-oil capsules is not necessary, it certainly wouldn't hurt. At the very least, it's advisable to keep them in a cool, dry place.

Flax: Flaxseed oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fats. It is widely available in health-food stores and better supermarkets. It doesn't pose the toxicity threat inherent in eating fish and most people find that it has a pleasant taste.

You can grind the flax seeds and sprinkle them on salads and cereals, or use the oil in salad dressings. You can bake with flaxseed oil, but never fry with it as it smokes at very low temperatures. Also, keep the oil in the refrigerator and check the date on the bottle for freshness before purchasing. You can freeze flaxseed oil to prolong the shelf life.

Whenever possible, purchase organic flaxseed oil. It is more expensive, but there are several brands on the market so you can compare and save.

The recommended dose of flaxseed oil is five to seven grams. To achieve this dosage, take one to two tablespoons of oil daily with food, either on its own, over salad, or mixed into smoothies and fruit drinks.

Wild Game and Grass-fed Cattle
Another great way to increase omega-3s in your diet is to replace beef with game meat, such as venison and other game animals that are raised exclusively on grass. Barring that, eating grass-fed beef is a good alternative.

Unfortunately, most cattle are fed grain only in the few months before slaughter to increase their weight. This decreases the omega-3 fat content of the meat. You will be hard-pressed to find grass-fed beef in the local grocery. However, many health-food stores now carry organic grass-fed beef or have a contact number for someone who does. Even better, you can purchase the beef directly from the farmer who raises it. That way, you will be sure that the meat meets with your approval.

Trans Fatty Acids: Bad Fat to Avoid
Just as important as increasing the amount of good fat in our diets is the need to decrease the amount of bad, or trans fatty acids we consume.

Trans fatty acids are used by the prepared-food industry to prolong the shelf life of such baked goods as cookies and crackers, and are found in supermarket foods such as peanut butter, shortening and margarine. They appear on the label as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

These fats interfere with the normal metabolism of essential fatty acids (such as omega-3 oils), forcing our bodies to take up even less of what little good fats we consume. They are considered a health hazard by many - so much so that they have even been banned in Holland. The FDA is currently considering adding trans fatty acid information on food product labels to promote consumer awareness.

Modern diets are frighteningly poor in these good oils, due in part to bad food choices, the current low-fat craze and industry reliance on 'bad' fats in manufactured food products.

Fish Versus Flax
The difference between flaxseed and fish oils is the type of omega-3 which they provide. Flaxseed provides omega-3 in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA). Fish oil supplies omega-3 in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). While EPA is more active, LNA from flaxseed oil is ultimately converted to EPA by the body. The advantages of flaxseed oil are that it is readily available, vegetarian, and doesn't carry the burden of toxicity as does fish oil.

Go Fish
The levels of contaminants in fish oils are often determined by the size of the fish and their relative rank in the food chain. Small fish (such as sardines and anchovies) are short-lived and, therefore, are less prone to accumulating environmental pollutants. Larger fish, such as cod and mackerel, are predatory species that are long-lived and therefore contain higher levels of pollutants. Most health-food-grade fish oils are fish body oils extracted from the fish. If the label says that it comes from a particular species of fish (i.e. salmon oil), then you know that it is a health-food-grade fish oil.

An Easy Test to See if Beef is Grass-fed
Wild game and grass-fed beef are good sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids. An inexpensive, yet effective way to determine if beef is indeed grass-fed is to purchase the ground beef and slowly cook it until it is done. Drain and collect all the fat. If the beef is grass-fed, the fat collected will be noticeably thinner than that of ordinary beef. It will also remain liquid at room temperature, as it has very few saturated fats which solidify at room temperature.

Some Quick Tips for Increasing Omega-3 Oils in Your Diet

  • Avoid 'nullifying' omega-6 oils such as corn, safflower, soy and sunflower
  • Use flax and hemp seeds and oil as well as walnuts in recipes whenever possible
  • Eat more safe fish, especially wild salmon, sardines and anchovies
  • Substitute grass-fed beef and game for regular beef
  • Add more green, leafy vegetables to your diet
  • Steer clear of trans fatty acids (hydrogenated vegetable oils)

A Word of Caution
The blood-thinning benefits of omega-3 oils are well documented. For this reason, those on blood-thinning medications should consult their physicians before starting an omega-3 supplementation program. Also, stroke victims and persons at risk of having a stroke should consult their physicians prior to using omega-3 supplements.

Taken as directed, omega-3-rich oils do not have any negative side-effects. However, excessive flaxseed oil and/or omega-3 essential fatty acids in the diet, in the absence of adequate levels of omega-6 EFAs can weaken blood vessels and capillaries and increase the tendency and frequency of nose bleeds and other bleeding problems. It is widely accepted that our diets are already highly imbalanced in terms of omega-6 consumption, so there is little concern in this regard. When in doubt, consult a physician.

Cookie Recipe: (the Flax Council of Canada)

Farmland Flax Cookies - A popular cookie that everyone loves:

Butter 1 1/3 cups
Granulated sugar 1 1/4 cups
Lightly packed brown sugar 1 1/2 cups
Flax seed 2 1/3 cups
3 large eggs 3
Vanilla 1 1/2 tsp
All-purpose flour 3 1/2 cups
Baking soda 1 tbsp
Oatmeal 3 cups

In a bowl, cream butter and sugars; add flax seed.
In another bowl, beat eggs and vanilla together. Combine with flax mixture.
Sift together the flour and soda. Mix in oatmeal and combine with other ingredients.
Form dough into 4 cm (1 inch) round logs. Place in freezer and chill.
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).
Slice into .5 cm (1/4 inch) medallions.
Place on baking sheet, leaving about 5 cm (2 inches) between cookies.
Bake 13 to 15 minutes.
Remove from sheet and cool.
Yield: 108 cookies (5 cm/2 inches)
Serving Size: 2 cookies

Single-Serving Nutrient Values
Calories 185
Monounsaturates 2.3g
Protein 3.7 g
Saturates 3.5g
Carbohydrate 23.9 g
Cholesterol 25.1 mg
Fibre 2.2 g
Sodium 134 mg
Fat 8.8 g
Potassium 174 mg
Polyunsaturates 2.5 g
Folate 33 mcg

Sources:
Canadian Hemp Corp.
9175 Mainwaring Rd., Sidney, B.C. V8L 1J9 Ph: 250-656-7233
Fax: 250-656-8860 E-mail: hempcorp@home.com
Web site: www.hempcorp.com

Ocean Nutrition Canada Manufacturer of fish-oil capsules
www.ocean-nutrition.com

Raincoast Trading: Providing all-natural, wild seafood products. All products are selectively harvested from ecologically responsible fisheries and packaged using recyclable materials. 9398 Alaska Way, Delta, B.C., V4C 4R8 Tel: 604-582-8268
Fax: 604-588-9680 E-mail: info@raincoasttrading.com
Web site: www.raincoasttrading.com

Dr. Sears' fish-oil products: www.fishoilbenefits.com 1-877-877-4910.

Books on Health-giving Omega-3 Oils

Gursche, Siegfried. Fantastic Flax: Alive Books $10.95 www.alive.com

Rudin, Donald. Omega-3 Oils: Why You Can't Afford to Live Without Essential Oils. Avery Publishing Group, 1996. $19.99.

Sears, Barry. The Omega Rx Zone: The Miracle of the New High-Dose Fish Oil. HarperCollins, 2003. $24.95

Web sites:
Dr. Joseph Mercola, author of the No Grain Diet. Check out his Web site for lots of great information on omega-3s. www.mercola.com/beef/omega3_oil.htm

Omega 3 Oils. Affiliated with Barry Sears, this Web site offers information on the different grades of fish oil, as well as on products to purchase. www.healthtransformations.net/products.html

Flax Council of Canada. Good information and great recipes. www.flaxcouncil.ca

Omega nutrition. Good flax information and recipes. www.omeganutrition.com