In our monthly Ask Australis column, we answer questions from our readers (like you) about anything and all things fish. Have a fish question you’d like answered? Submit it in the comments below.
Q: Why should I care about omega-3s? And where can I get them?
A: You’ve likely heard that you should be getting more omega-3s into your diet. But what are they and why should you pay any attention to them? Let’s start at the beginning.
Omega-3s are a family of polyunsaturated fats that play an important role in repairing your cells and reducing inflammation. They also play a crucial role in brain function. If you’re interested in the specifics, omega-3s contribute to:
- The maintenance of healthy cell membranes
- Making the hormones that regulate blood clotting
- Contracting and relaxing the artery walls
- Helping the heart beat at a steady rate (which helps prevents heart disease and stroke)
- Controlling lupus, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis
- Protecting the body from cancer
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving blood vessel function
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. They are considered essential because your body doesn’t produce them for you so you must get them from the foods you eat.
Most Americans don’t get enough omega-3s. We are far more likely to consume omega-6s, which are found in poultry, eggs, wheat, vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. Even though omega-6s may help lower LDL cholesterol and protect against heart disease, excess consumption is associated with inflammation. You want to make sure that you’re getting enough omega-3s to moderate the inflammation associated with omega-6s in your diet.
So, where can you get these highly desirable omega-3s?
There are three kinds of omega-3s: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are mainly obtained through fish and other seafood (think sardines, salmon, arctic char, mackerel, anchovies, barramundi, oysters, and mussels). The third, ALA, is found in vegetable oils, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts, leafy vegetables (brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and salad greens) and some animal fat from grass-fed animals. However, ALA is generally considered to lack the direct health benefits of EPA and DHA, and is primarily beneficial only after our bodies convert it to these more useful fatty acids. “DHA, in particular, is very important for the developing brain,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee. It’s primarily responsible for most of the benefits of consuming omega-3s, including supporting heart health.
According to Dr. Frank Sacs, Professor of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, we should each aim to get at least one healthy dose of omega-3s into our diet every day. For example, a serving of a fish high in omega-3s (salmon or barramundi, for example), a handful of walnuts or a tablespoon of flaxseed oil. You can also get omega-3s through supplements, but the foods that are rich in omega-3s are also goods sources of other nutrients and eating them helps to shift our diets away from less desirable fats. (In other words, if we’re eating fish for dinner, we’re not eating pizza!)
Barramundi is a great source of omega-3s. Australis’s co-founder and CEO, Josh Goldman became interested in omega-3s in the 90’s when he was researching ways to improve survival of juvenile marine fish, in other words, how to raise strong and healthy young fish. Marine fish start life very small and grow extremely rapidly making their fatty acid requirement both specific and quite demanding to accommodate their fast growth.
“One of the really interesting things we learned is that if you don’t get the fatty acid balance right during the fish’s first few weeks it not only affects their survival as juveniles but also limits their potential to thrive later in life,” says Goldman.
This got Goldman thinking: If omega-3s were so important to thriving fish, could they be just as important to humans?
Ever since Goldman has made omega-3s a big part of his diet. Besides eating, well, lots of barramundi, he has a tin of sardines for lunch almost every day, which he pairs with different mustards and horseradish sauces to keep it interesting.
With the health of the fish and those eating the fish in mind, Goldman made omega-3s a priority in farming barramundi. The fish’s high level of omega-3s is achieved by tailoring the ratio of various oils over the course of a fish’s life. By doing so, the fish preferentially store the omega-3s they consume, which we benefit from when we eat the fish, and use the other fats as energy. The omega-3 levels in barramundi are comparable to that of Coho Salmon and much higher than almost any other white fish.
Want to learn more about omega-3s? Start with one, or all, of these resources:
- “Ask the Expert: Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” Harvard School of Public Health
- “Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution,” Harvard School of Public Health
- Stay tuned: Paul Greenberg, the author of Four Fish, has traveled to far off places and used himself as a laboratory to test the true power of omega-3s. You can read all about what he discovered in his upcoming book tentatively titled The Omega Principle.