4. Tap Other Sources of Omega-3s
Don’t eat fish? You can turn to other sources of omega-3s. Flaxseed oil, for example, contains about 55% omega-3 fats. Canola oil has about 10%. Soybean oil is about 7% omega-3 fats. Walnuts and leafy green vegetables are also good sources of omega-3s.
All of these foods are healthy choices, experts say. But there’s still some debate about whether they have all the benefits of fish oil. The reason: the omega-3s in flax, canola, walnuts, and other vegetable sources are in the form of alpha linoleic acid, or ALA. Although the body can convert some ALA to EPA and DHA, the two forms of omega-3 fats with proven heart protection benefits, it’s not clear how much is converted.
If you don’t eat fish at all, you may want to talk to your health care provider about taking a supplement that contains EPA and DHA.
The Debate Over Omega-6 vs Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Some researchers are convinced that the healthiest fats are omega-3s, found principally in fish. They insist that omega-6s compete with omega-3s in the body, so the ratio of these two forms of polyunsaturated fats is very important.
“The ideal ratio is one to one or two to one, omega-6 to omega-3,” says Artemis Simopolous, MD, who directs the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, in Washington, D.C., and is widely regarded as an expert in fatty acids. “Unfortunately, the American diet has been flooded with omega-6 fatty acids, mostly in the form of vegetable oils such as corn oil and safflower oil.”
Simopolous says that most Americans would do well to cut back on oils high in omega-6s in favor of oils with more omega-3s, such as canola oil and flaxseed oil.
Not everyone agrees. In 2009, the American Heart Association issued a scientific advisory insisting that omega-6s have important health benefits. “The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s doesn’t matter since both are good,” says Harvard University School of Public Health cardiologist Frank Sacks, MD, who led the AHA’s advisory board. “The ratio is meaningless because it’s good divided by good.”
The debate isn’t over. Last year, researchers from the National Institutes of Health published an analysis of studies going back more than 40 years. They found that omega-3 was linked to most of the heart disease protection seen in the research. They also found evidence that a diet high in omega-6s may actually increase cardiovascular risk.
For now, experts on both sides of the issue agree that eating sources of omega-3 fats, mostly fish, is important. “Americans already get plenty of omega-6s in their diets,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo. “But many people aren’t getting recommended levels of omega-3s.” The current recommendation calls for two servings of a fatty fish such as salmon a week.