Holy Mackerel!

By Beth Cecil
Owensboro Health Healthpark dietitian

Holy Mackerel!! What is all this talk about fish and omega-3 fatty acids? One of the biggest nutrition buzzwords these days, omega-3 fatty acids, often associated with fish, may indeed offer a sea of benefits.

My friend and co-worker Lea has urged me for months now to write a column about fish. I have been hesitant for the simple fact that unfortunately I am not a fish eater. But with heart month coming to a close and lent just getting started, I felt like this time was ideal.  So Lea, this is for you.

Omega-3s are associated with health benefits. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids, fish and fish oil in our diets can reduce the risks for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and various CVD outcomes such as sudden death, cardiac death and myocardial infarction. 

They also play a role in lowering blood lipid levels, such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Omega-3s are believed to help with brain development and function, reduce inflammation in the body, and keep blood from clotting excessively.

There have even been some hints that omega-3s may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, dementia, lupus, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. They protect from certain types of cancer, reduce the risk of obesity and may decrease aggression and depression in adults.

Omega-3s are fatty acids found in foods. Our bodies need them, but cannot make them and they are therefore referred to as essential fatty acids.

ALA (alpha-linolenic acids), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are the types of omega-3 fatty acids. But don’t feel too badly if you can’t remember these big names. The important thing according to experts is to include all types of omega-3 fatty acids into your diet on a regular basis.

The American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association both recommend that Americans eat a diet containing at least two servings of fish a week totally about eight ounces of fish and about 500 milligrams of EPA/DHA. Fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, salmon and albacore tuna are the best fish sources.

Individuals with coronary heart disease (CHD) or documented CHD risk, according to the American Heart Association, should aim a bit higher, for about 1 gm of EPA/DHA each day. This goal can be met by adding a couple servings of seafood to their meal plan each week or considering some supplementation with the consultation of a physician. Please note that OTC fish oil supplements are not regulated like prescription medications and should be used under the care and supervision of a physician.

In addition to fish, liberally incorporate other foods that are rich in omega 3s such as flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed, walnuts, pecans and other nuts. And look for items on the shelves with omega-3s added such as some brands of eggs, peanut butter and mayonnaise.

Mercury content of fish is a concern to some, but for the general population the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks. In 2004, Health and Human Services did advise pregnant women or those who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, as they tend to have high levels of mercury. They also recommend that this population limit their intake of fish or shellfish to no more than 12 ounces each week.