Omega-3 is the creme de le creme of fat. If you are worried you aren’t getting enough fat, start with omega-3. Eat them now and eat them often. The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are undisputable. I want to arm you will an arsenal of information so you know exactly which fatty foods are worth your time. By the end of this article, you will confidently be able to choose the freshest fish and you won’t be duped by supplement labels. Let’s take a closer look at all things omega-3.
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid. It serves as a source of energy and most importantly as a building block for DHA and EPA. ALA is found in plant-based foods such as flax, chia, soybean, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, vegetable oils, and dark leafy greens.
Our body tries to convert ALA to EPA/DHA, however, it only converts around 8% of ALA to the beneficial EPA and DHA. Researchers aren’t sure of all the factors that come into play when converting ALA, we know that having proper stores of vitamin B6, niacin, vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium all affect the small conversion rate.
This is why plants aren’t a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. EPA and DHA are the most beneficial types of omega-3, this is why I suggest consuming salmon, fish oil, or algae. Algae is the only known plant source of DHA that can be consumed directly in the diet, I’ll make sure to explain more about algae later in this post.
EPA and DHA
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that boast an array of health benefits. During fetal development, these fats ensure proper neuronal, retinal, and immune function. Children that consume low levels of DHA corresponds with poor reading and memory skills. Having enough omega-3 during pregnancy is linked to the child having a higher IQ, better social skills, less behavioral problems, and a lower chance of ADHD. In adults, EPA and DHA influence several aspects of cardiovascular issues such as inflammation, coronary diseases, and anticoagulation. EPA has been shown to be as effective at treating depression as an antidepressant drug. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, fish oil, some seafood, and shellfish. Marine algae is also a good source of DHA.
Flax and Chia
Flax and chia seeds are two plant-based sources of omega-3’s that are easy to add into your diet. As we just learned, the conversion rate of ALA to DHA/EPA isn’t spectacular, and making this your primary source of omega-3’s isn’t advised.
Both flax and chia seeds are a great source of dietary fiber and minerals making them a great addition to any diet. like to soak a tablespoon of flax seeds overnight. Then in the morning, I will add the into my smoothies to grind up the seeds. Type chia seed recipes on Pinterest and take your pick from dozens of ways to use chia seeds.
Both seeds are still susceptible to rancidity. I always store theses seeds in the fridge or freezer as the oils within the seeds can easily oxidize. This is also why I rarely cook with either seed.
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Buyer’s Guide: Flax Seeds
I beg you not to buy bags of pre-ground flax seed. After flax is ground it can go rancid in a matter of weeks even if they’re refrigerated. This is why I recommend buying them whole and grind them yourself. Coffee grinders, strong blenders, and food processors are all easy DIY ways to make flax powder. Remember to store any extra ground flax in the fridge – I would suggest making a new batch every week.
Buyer’s Guide: Flax Oil
It’s hard to find flax oil that isn’t already on it’s way to rancidity. Omega-3’s are very susceptible to oxidization and without knowing the packaging date, the details of the storage and shipping, I’m always a little skeptical.
Make sure to purchase oil that is in a dark or opaque bottle. Never buy flax oil that is on a shelf, if you didn’t find the oil in the refrigerated section, just walk away. Remember there are three enemies of oil: heat, oxygen, and light. Never heat flax oil. Add it in smoothies, as a topping on a salad, or mixed in a cold dish. Remember there are three enemies of oil: heat, oxygen, and light. Never heat flax oil. Add it in smoothies, as a topping on a salad, or mixed in a cold dish.
Algae Oil Supplements
Cold water fish and fish oil supplements are a good source of EPA and DHA. However, my favorite vegan alternative can bypass commercial fishing and oceanic pollutants, because algae oil can be synthesized straight from the lab. Contrary to popular belief, there is a way to get adequate DHA /EPA from a plant. It’s true that flax seeds, vegetable oils, walnuts, and leafy greens are rich in ALA – but as we learned earlier in this article, they don’t have a great conversion rate.
The single plant-based exception comes from the sea.
Marine algae is a direct rich source of DHA and EPA. This makes algae oil the best vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s a single-celled organism that derives its energy from sunlight via photosynthesis. This makes algae a rich source of phytochemicals. Algae is also full of important minerals like iodine, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
Algae oil supplements are recommended at lower doses than fish oil because they have a higher concentration of DHA. Taking one to two grams of algae oil daily will result in elevated blood levels of DHA and EPA.
Eggs and Possible Omegas
The fats in the egg yolk are directly affected by the hen’s diet. Many hens are fed a mixture of corn and other fillers – this diet will generally lack omega-3 fatty acids.
Some eggs are now advertised as being enriched with omega-3. However, don’t trust the flashy promise on the front of the carton. Turn it over and look at the label. Many “omega-3 enriched eggs” actually contain the plant-based ALA rather than EPA/DHA.
I wouldn’t pay any extra for these eggs since it’s likely you are getting plenty of ALA in your diet from cooking oils, nuts, and seeds.There are some eggs that do contain EPA/DHA because the hens were fed fish oil or marine algae. Either know your farmer and his feed – or check the fine print on the packaging.
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Farmed vs. Wild Fish
Let me start by saying that consuming any salmon is better than no salmon. Despite the health benefits, nearly all seafood will have some contaminants – most notably, PCBs and mercury. In my opinion, the health benefits of eating salmon outweigh the presence of environmental pollutants. Any oceanic fish will have some environmental pollutants because we are polluting our oceans. This is why the FDDA recommends you should avoid eating large swordfish, tilefish, canned tuna, sharks, and king mackerel. In theory, the larger the fish, the higher the concentration of toxins in the flesh.
Farmed fish are a whole different ballgame. Farmed fish can be fed corn, soy, and vegetable oils which speeds the growth process and produces a more fatty fish. Unfortunately, this process increases omega-6 fat content, not the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Because the feed is not rich in minerals like algae some fish food is fortified. You could think of farmed salmon like fortified fish because some feed also contains essential amino acids and minerals. If you think farmed salmon is free of environmental pollutants and dioxins think again. In a global assessment of hundreds of salmon samples, researchers discovered that the PCB concentration in farmed salmon was eight times higher than wild salmon.
The truth is, it’s difficult to know if your fish has come from a clean farm or a polluted one. It’s also hard to know if the frozen fillet you got from the grocery store was flash frozen or if it was frozen on his last leg. Plus, both farmed and wild salmon will have some form of environmental pollutants. So if you can’t afford to buy wild caught fish, farmed salmon is not a bad second option. The bottom line is that any source of salmon delivers beneficial omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Despite the pollutants, both the American Heart Association and I think salmon should be on your plate. Read on to see how to pick the perfect fish.
Buyer’s Guide: Whole Fish
Touch the Flesh
If the marketer allows you to touch the fish do these basic tests: lightly touch the skin, it should feel slippery, cold, and wet. The scales should be firm and shiny. If you run your finger over the scales and they feel dry and flaky – it is not a fresh fish.
Lightly press your finger into the fish. If it doesn’t bounce back to its original shape, or if you can still see the indent where your finger was, the meat has broken down and has become soft. Pass.
Look at the Eyes
They should be clear, plump, wet, and shiny. Once the eyes are glazed, cloudy, sunken, or shriveled – you are not looking at a fresh and healthy fish.
Check Out the Gills
Fresh fish will have bright pink or red gills – if they are dark or browning move along. At this point, the gills will be slimy and sticky. Both indicate the fish is past it’s prime.
Observe the Fins
The dorsal and tail fin should be wet, intact, and not ragged. A mishandled fish will have torn find and an old fish will have dry and brittle fins. This could be a giveaway that the fish was stored or netted for too long.
Buyer’s Guide: Fish Fillet
Little pools of liquid in the container around the fish means the fillet is breaking down and can’t hold it’s own moisture. Avoid fillets that are sitting in a wet pool.
For dark meat like salmon or tuna, the color of the fillet should be highly saturated, and should never have a dull or gray tint. For white meat such as halibut or cod, the color should look almost translucent. If the meat looks opaque or cloudy just move along.
Notice if any of the white lines in the meat are cracked or coming apart. These myelin sheaths are a good indication of freshness or mishandling. IF the fillets are breaking apart at the seams this means the muscle tissue is degrading, and you guessed it, not a fresh fish.
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Buyer’s Guide: Frozen Fish
Frozen fish can be a nutritious and fresh option depending on your proximity to the sea. Knowing the method of freezing is desirable. Flash frozen fish are typically caught, gutted, and frozen all on the same boat. If you get fish that was frozen right after it was caught it will be great when thawed. Other times fish are frozen after their prime – if it wasn’t fresh before it was frozen, it certainly won’t be after it’s thawed. The safest way to thaw frozen fish is in the fridge. Put the fillet on a tray 24 hours before you want to cook the fish.
Fish Oil Supplements
Fish oil supplements are an easy way of getting a regular dose of omega-3. The gelatinous capsules help to prevent the rancidity of these unstable oils. However, there can be a large variance in supplements on the shelf. This is my list of three things I always check on the labels before buying fish oil supplements.
• Look for the total amount of EPA and DHA on the label. The front of the bottle may say 1,000 mg of fish oil, but it isn’t specifying which omegas are being used in the supplement. ALA is a plant form of omega-3 that doesn’t convert will in the body. Make sure there is a combined total of 350-500mg of EPA and DHA on the back of the bottle.
• Check to see if vitamin E or astaxanthin are in the ingredients. Fish oils can easily go rancid and the addition of antioxidants will help preserve the shelf life of the oils.
• Unfortunately, supplements are not regulated the same way drugs are. That means you must trust the company that they labeled the proper dosages on their bottle. It’s always a bonus when I see a supplement that has hired a third party to check the potency of the supplement.
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Takeaway on Omega-3
• Omega-3 should be a regular part of your diet via food or supplementation
• If buying fish, eggs, or meat – knowing the source of the product and the farming or fishing practices will give you insight to the quality of the food.
• Plant-based omega-3 is usually high in ALA but doesn’t convert well to EPA and DHA.
• Algae oil is the plant-based exception that is a straight source of DHA.