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Nutrition 101

Omega-3 and its Relationship with Cardiovascular Disease

Omega-3 and its Relationship with Cardiovascular Disease

Our Culinary Nutritionist Andrea Canada sheds some light on the recent debate surrounding the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

You may have heard that omega-3s -- a specific kind of polyunsaturated fat found in fish, shellfish, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts -- are good fats and that they are good for your heart. Researchers have noted that societies with diets high in seafood traditionally had lower incidences of heart disease. Studies have examined the intake of EPA and DHA (the kinds of omega-3 fatty acid in seafood) with deaths related to heart disease and found that with a daily intake of 250mg omega-3 fatty acids, the risk of heart disease-related mortality is significantly reduced.

However, science and media reports about scientific findings can be confusing. Last week, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that omega-3 supplements were not significantly associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack or stroke.

So how do we sort out this contradiction? A quick Googling about this recent article reveals several responses that take issue with its design and interpretation of results and makes me think this conversation is far from over. There can be a myriad of reasons why studies that seem to examine the same thing may have different outcomes. While this meta-analysis examined 69,000 subjects across 20 studies, an earlier meta-analysis, also published in JAMA, found significant health benefits from omega-3s in its examination of over 350,000 subjects across 20 studies. I’ll leave it to the scientific community to debate how this latest study fits within the current thoughts about the health benefits of omega-3 supplements, so stay tuned for a follow-up!

In the meantime, the bulk of evidence still shows that fish and omega-3 consumption is linked with better health outcomes. There is currently no recommendation from the USDA on the amount of omega-3 fats that Americans should consume each day, however the Dietary Guidelines do recommend we consume different types of seafood several times a week to get enough of these beneficial fats. As a dietitian, I would prefer that people get their omega-3s from eating various types of seafood several times a week and from other sources like flax, chia and walnuts than from supplements (like was studied in the most recent meta-analysis).

And if you’re concerned about toxins in fish, it’s likely the benefits of omega-3s to the cardiovascular system outweigh the risks of toxins for most Americans. The FDA provides guidance regarding mercury in fish if you’re pregnant or nursing and for young children. PCBs, another toxin found across our food supply, are more concentrated in farmed salmon than wild salmon, so if you are concerned look for wild salmon. And remember, the health benefit has been shown to come from 250mg/day so you don’t need to overdo it if you are already consuming a variety of seafood several times a week.

It will no doubt be interesting to see how this unfolds, so check back soon for more on the debate over omega-3 fatty acids.

See more Nutrition 101 blog posts from the SPE Certified Culinary Nutritionists.

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