- Friday, 13 April 2012
A recent study conducted by researchers from UCLA found that a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids may cause the brain to age faster, putting a person at risk for memory loss and dementia. This is one in a growing body of studies to find a benefit associated with a diet rich in Omega-3s. The benefits of omega-3s may not be new news to many of you, but in this article I’m going to delve deeper into this important nutrient and share some tips on how to make sure you are getting enough.
But first, let’s review the science. Omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps best known as the nutrients derived from fatty fish that live in cold seawater, such as salmon and herring. Some other common sources include krill oil, algal oil, squid oil and some plant oils such as echium oil and flaxseed oil. Eating fish and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps people protect their hearts, and maintain healthy brains as they age, as the UCLA study suggests.
So who can benefit from omega-3s? This is a nutrient that can truly offer benefits at every life stage. One study found that children born to mothers who consumed less than 340 g of seafood per week were at increased risk for low verbal IQ, prosocial behavior, fine motor, communication and social development scores. This suggests that omega-3s are essential in early childhood development.
Another study found that blood pressure reductions in overweight boys going through their adolescent growth spurt were observed following 16 weeks of consumption of omega-3 fortified bread. The authors wrote that “A blood pressure decrease of about 3 mmHg corresponds to a [greater than] 15 percent reduction in the risk of stroke at a whole population level in adults.”
And the UCLA study, which included 1,575 people between the ages of 58 and 76 who underwent MRI brain scans, blood work, and various mental-function tests, found that when compared to those with the highest blood levels of omega-3s, men and women with the lowest levels had smaller brain volumes and performed more poorly on tests of visual memory and executive function, including problem-solving, multi-tasking and abstract thinking.
Additionally the American Heart Association encourages adults to consume good sources of omega-3s at least twice a week. This is about the same as consuming about 500 mg omega-3 fatty acids daily as a supplement.
Getting Enough Omega-3s
Despite the strong evidence that this nutrient has so many potential benefits, as a naturopathic doctor, the thing I hear most often from patients is, “but Dr. MacKay, I don’t like fish.” This is an unfortunate, but legitimate complaint, and as a father, I know too well how challenging it can be to get children to eat salmon or sardines twice a week. Fortunately for consumers, there are a number of suitable options to get around this.
The most common is to take a fish oil supplement. They come in several different flavors and delivery mechanisms and can give you the necessary amount you need to optimize benefits. Krill oil is another marine source of omega-3s and is a popular choice for many.
If fish oil is too much like fish for you (and for some people who just don’t like fish this can be a tough obstacle to overcome) there are other options as well. Algae oil, for instance, is a common alternative to fish oil.
Flaxseed is also a popular option and is excellent sprinkled onto cereal or yogurt in the morning at breakfast, or convenient in supplement form.
Research shows some differences in the benefits you get from omega 3 fatty acids, depending on whether you get your omega-3s from longer chains marine and algae-based sources or vegetable sources such as flax seed—however, getting some form of omega-3s is better than not getting any at all.
You can also look for foods that have been fortified with omega-3s such as eggs (though not all eggs are created equal, the omega-3 content of an egg depends on the diet of the hens producing the eggs).
One of my personal favorites is sardines. Try to eat them regularly. If you have never tried sardines (or if you haven’t tried them since you were a kid), do not overlook this incredible super food! Sardines have come a long way in quality and freshness. They can be packed in a variety of yummy options such as mustard, marinara, or olive oil and spices, they travel well and they are cheap. For lunch, I often bring left over tossed salad and throw on a can of sardines in olive oil, and voila, the perfect lunch that balances protein and fresh vegetables. It takes no time to prepare and I can’t even mess it up.
The good news about omega-3s, in whatever form you choose is that the science is rapidly expanding and the positive results are piling up. The evidence strongly suggests that we should be consuming foods and supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids and we should be doing it at every stage of our life. It is important for healthy pregnancy and development in children and adolescents; it supports our hearts, our brains, and counterbalances the excess inflammation throughout the body. You and your family have so many options available there’s no excuse to avoid this critical nutrient.
Duffy MacKay, N.D., is vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the dietary supplement industry’s leading trade association.
Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C et al. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet 369(9561), 578–585 (2007). Accessed at http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)61118-0/fulltext
The Journal of Pediatrics, September 2010, Volume 157, Issue 3, Pages 395-400.e1 “Effects of Fish Oil Supplementation on Markers of the Metabolic Syndrome” Authors: M. Hojgaard Pedersen, C. Molgaard, L.I. Hellgren, L. Lauritzen; Accessed at http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(10)00301-X/abstract
Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, et al. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology. 2012;78(9):658-664. Accessed at http://www.neurology.org/content/78/9/658.abstract
American Heart Association: Fish And Omega-3 Fatty Acids