Fish & Fish Oils are Not Health Food
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Fish & Fish Oils are Not Health Food


This week's blog post comes from one of our fantastic advisory board panel, Dr. Tim Radak. Dr. Radaks' recent presentation is a must-see and his post below is packed with invaluable information sharing the truth on fish and fish oil. As a longtime vegan I teach the same message that most of the fat in fish is not heart-healthy fat and also fish are full of pollutants. A wholefoods plant-based vegan diet automatically reduces exposure to these toxins and supplementing with fish oil may do more harm than good.

In recent years, fish oil has been hailed as a miracle cure for everything from heart disease to dementia. Many people supplement with fish oil to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for maintaining cellular function. Unfortunately, studies have shown that most of the health claims associated with fish oil may be unfounded.

As you know, our Human Ecology Project is our life's passion and both Bill Tara and I teach all our students that our belief is that the sole purpose of life is to pass on what was learned, all we share is the truth always. It's therefore, a great joy to introduce you to Tim and his work.

Dr. Tim Radak

Dr. Tim Radak has worked in leadership and administration for a variety of public health-related nonprofit organizations, ranging from cancer prevention and research to health promotion and nutrition. He has taught graduate-level courses for over a decade in both campus-based and distance learning environments. Prior to joining Walden University, Dr. Radak served as assistant professor at Appalachian State University and Director of the Graduate Dietetic Program.

He has published articles in a number of national and international peer-reviewed journals, written textbook chapters, and contributed to and participated in television, radio, and newsprint media as an expert on various public health and nutrition topics, with a focus on essential fatty acids. He is an Advisory Board Member for the Human Ecology Project. He has been credentialed as a registered dietitian nutritionist since 2000. Dr. Radak has been a faculty member at Walden in the College of Health Professions since 2010, teaching public health courses in both the PhD and MPH programs before becoming the academic program coordinator for the PhD in Public Health program.

Omega 3 Fatty Acid Sources

These fats are essential and confer many health benefits. Omega 3 fatty acids are distributed in a wide variety of food sources both on land and from the sea.

What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Omega 3 fatty acids are part of a class of fats that the body must incorporate directly from sources in nature. Unlike all other fats, which the body can produce from other fats as needed, omega 3 fatty acids are unique in that they cannot be derived or synthesized from other fats in the diet and the body. They are therefore labeled as “essential” fatty acids.  Requirements for intake of EFA are very small.

What do they do?

They play a role in the health or function of every tissue in the body and produce potent substances and compounds involved in a variety of processes. The parent omega 3 fatty acid is α-linolenic acid (ALA), some of which is converted to longer chain fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Omega 3 fatty acids are incorporated in the membrane of phospholipids (the building blocks for cell membranes) and play a variety of roles in cell signaling and functioning. They are required for growth, reproduction, neuronal function, and skin maintenance, are involved in cholesterol regulation and metabolism, and affect gene expression (a process where genetic information in lipids and fats can be changed by omega 3 fatty acids).

How much do we need?

Despite playing an important role and function in the body, requirements for intake of omega 3 fatty acids are very small. The US Institute of Medicine advises that men and women need about 1.6 and 1.1 grams/day, respectively, of ALA and a bit more for pregnant or lactating women. This represents about 0.6 to 1.2 percent of total daily energy requirements.  The US Institute of Medicine suggests there isn’t enough evidence for providing an adequate intake threshold for EPA or DHA but 10% of ALA can come from EPA/DHA if desired.  The UK Dietary Reference Guide recommendations for omega 3 fatty acids are a bit less for ALA (0.2 percent total energy).

Data from US national nutrition studies suggest we are meeting and slightly exceeding these intake recommendations, and deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids is almost unheard of in both the US and UK. Intake of another essential fatty acid, Omega 6, does compete for incorporation with Omega 3, so if intake of Omega 6 is high, it may increase Omega 3 requirements.  Though both are essential and important to health, it is recommended to keep intake of Omega 6 fatty acids at a moderate level and the best way to achieve this is to focus on whole, unprocessed plant based foods as much as possible.

Sources with significant Omega 3 fatty acids

  1. Flax seeds

Flax seeds are rich in nutrients, phytochemicals, fiber and are a very good source of omega 3 fatty acids.  1 tablespoon contains about 1.6 grams of ALA providing 100% to 145% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.  Due to their fat content, purchase the seeds and grind them as needed, and store in an air tight container.

  1. Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a good source of omega 3 fatty acids and other important nutrients, including magnesium, calcium, and manganese, and are loaded with fiber. Over half the fat in Chia seeds comes from omega 3 fatty acids making this a very rich source of ALA. A one ounce serving contains about 5 grams of ALA providing 312% to 454% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.

  1. Walnuts and pecans

Nuts are a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, with walnuts being a superior source. Both of these nuts are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals such as phytosterols and other nutrients.  A one ounce serving of walnuts contains about 2.5 grams of ALA providing 160% to 233% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.  A one ounce serving of pecans contains about 0.28 grams of ALA providing 18% to 25% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.

  1. Oils and margarines

While oils and margarines are processed foods and high in calories, it does not take much to provide substantial omega 3 fatty acids. 1 tablespoon of canola oil contains about 1.3 grams of ALA providing 80% to 116% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively. A tablespoon of flax oil contains a whopping 7.2 grams of ALA providing 453% to 660% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively. 1 tablespoon of canola oil contains about 1.3 grams of ALA providing 80% to 116% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively. 1 tablespoon of margarine such as Earth Balance contains about 0.44 grams of ALA providing 28% to 40% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.

  1. Soybeans and Tofu

Touted as health food, soy and soy products like tofu are a solid protein source, rich in phytochemicals, and have a sizeable amount of omega 3 fatty acids. A half cup of roasted soybeans yields about 0.67 grams of ALA providing 42% to 61% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively. A half cup of tofu, being more processed than soybeans, contains about 0.23 grams of ALA providing 14% to 21% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.

  1. Beans

Beans of all varieties are an excellent source of protein and fiber, one of the cheapest sources of protein, and some have significant amounts of omega 3 fatty acids.  A half cup of navy beans contains about 0.56 grams of ALA providing 37% to 54% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively. A half cup of kidney beans provides about 0.33 grams of ALA providing 20% to 30% of daily adequate intake for men and women, respectively.

  1. Algae

Where do fish obtain their omega 3 fatty acids? Directly from the plentiful algae in the ocean. For those wishing to take a supplement, algae oil or dried algae are available and provide very significant quantities of EPA and DHA, the long chain omega 3 fatty acids.  Various gel capsules sold on the market can range from 72-130 mg of EPA and 120-350 mg of DHA per capsule.

  1. Fish and Fish oil supplements

Fish oil and fish, especially fatty fish are plentiful in omega 3 fatty acids, however these are not ideal sources for several reasons despite their widespread promotion.  Fish accumulate heavy metals like methyl mercury and other environmental toxins like dioxins and polychorinated biphenyls to the degree that the Dietary Guideline for Americans provides specific guidance to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children to consume no more than 8-12 ounces per week and to specifically avoid certain fish.  The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in a 2006 report have similar recommendations and still promote fish mainly for cardiovascular disease reduction.

There are also issues surrounding sustainability, such as severe overfishing causing depleted fish stocks and affecting other sea life (bycatch). Please also refer to my previous post from Dr. Bruce Monger 'Crisis In Our Ocean'

Fish oil supplements have also largely been disproven as beneficial for cardiovascular and  brain health and mortality with several major meta-analysis studies showing little to no benefit.  The NHS Omega 3 Prescribing Fact Sheet, NHS England considers omega-3 fatty acid supplements as an item which should no longer be routinely prescribed in primary care.

Farmed fish do not fare any better. Because some are grown in concentrated containment areas and excrete their waste products in the surrounding water  and are often fed reprocessed ocean fish remains, they may end up containing more contaminants. Additionally, fish naturally produce trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which is considered to be a pro-atherogenic compound. Fish produce more TMAO than meat and eggs.

Finally, fish and other seafood sources of omega 3 like oysters are sources of cholesterol and saturated fat. and contain no fiber, all of which are related to cardiovascular health.  The cholesterol-free and fiber rich plant kingdom with far less issues for contamination thus offer better and safer sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

Are there other dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids?

We don’t need to exclusively focus on the rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids in order to meet the adequate daily intake. Nature has distributed omega 3 fatty acids in small amounts widely, even in leafy greens and raspberries.

Mother nature never gets it wrong. Please share this post with friends, family and colleagues and join us in service for a healthy world.

In good health

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