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August 2002 Issue
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids for Dummies
by Michael Fick
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We could get out scales, a calculator, trifocals, and our green eye shades, and spend hours a week balancing our omega oil intake, but
  • a) that level of effort will drive most people to donuts,
  • b) that time is better spent in exercise, and
  • c) most of us will benefit significantly just by diligently pursuing the improvements suggested here.
You can find reliable online medical data on this topic by searching on various terms such as "omega oils" or "essential fatty acids" at sites listed in the June 2001 Health & Fitness column. The best book on the topic seems to be The Omega Diet, by Simopoulos and Robinson (1999); Harper Collins. There's plenty more information available in Google searches on omega oils, but much of it is a commercially biased sales pitch for fish and omega oil capsules.

Omega 3 oils are available in various oil capsules, but clinical tests of their safety and efficacy are inconsistent and the labels often misrepresent their omega oils content. The only use of fish oil capsules supported by the American Heart Association is to help reduce extremely high blood triglyceride levels if they don't respond to prescribed medication. Getting omega 3s from natural food sources should always be the first option, most readily achieved with two meals of salmon, herring, sardines, or tuna each week providing optimal protection. Salmon generally has the highest omega-3 content. Pregnant women may need three servings of these fish each week for optimal fetal nervous system development and reduced incidence of premature birth, according to recent studies.

Some outspoken physicians believe that a healthy diet - the usual whole grains, beans, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds we all should eat plenty of - provides plenty of omega 3s, rendering fish unnecessary, but the balance of evidence seems to favor fish. (Mercury is a threat to fetuses and children from some fish, but not in the fish listed here.)

The most efficient improvement in our intake of the good omegas would be almost daily intake of an ounce or two of one of the foods high on the omega 3 list, but the idea of stinking up our kitchens by cooking fish a few times a week stinks to high heaven. Who's got the time, stomach, nose, or money to do that AND call in a HazMat team to erase all traces of the stink from their sink, counter, trash can, grille or oven or microwave, utensils, and cat every other day, let alone the stomach to base a meal on any one food two or three days a week?

So how do we eat more fish without the hassle? What works for me is keeping cans of salmon in the pantry and a covered container of it in the refrigerator. Every day I make a point of eating a few bites of it as a snack, or put some on a salad, in an omelet, in a casserole, in macaroni and cheese, or in a sandwich spread such as egg salad. I plan to access some of the healthy diet websites listed in the May 2001 Health & Fitness column to look for salmon recipes. But in the meantime, and with much less effort, I look forward each day to my few bites of cold salmon with any meal or by itself. There are many kinds of wild and farm-grown salmon, and their levels of omega 3 oils differ significantly and unpredictably. Go for a variety to cover your bases and vary its taste.

To avoid getting too much protein (we need little of it, and store the excess as fat) from all this salmon, we'll need to cut back even further on the meat we eat with our other meals. The salmon tastes better than Tums, so our extra calcium can now come from the salmon bones instead of a tablet. And the salmon also adds still more micronutrient variety to our diets.

Of course, if you're calorically challenged already, remember that Calories Rule. If you add calories to your diet in any form, including nuts and fish and fish oils, you must subtract something else from your diet and/or add more exercise to your life to avoid adding weight. And remember that improving your diet in one way is no excuse to abuse it in another; sardine-flavored Twinkies are still not cool.

Thank goodness!

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