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Omega 3: The Experts—Favorite Antidepressant
By Sarah Schmidt
If you keep up with the latest health news, you probably can’t help noticing that omega-3 fatty acids are the nutrient everyone seems to be talking about.
Evidence is piling up that these healthy fats, which are particularly abundant in fish, are good for your heart, your mind, and, well, just about every system in the body. “They really cross all boundaries,” says Mark Hyman, a physician and co- medical director of Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, a medical spa in Lenox, Massachusetts. “No matter who you are, omega-3s are something you should be paying attention to.”
Why? Because omega-3s are a great way to prevent inflammation, which is emerging as the common denominator in a host of serious diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s. This apparent wonder worker of a nutrient is even being studied for its potential role in preventing cancer.
But the flood of information sparks as many questions as answers. Can you get what you need from a healthy diet? Is it possible to get too much? What if you’re a vegetarian? Not to worry: Our user’s guide will tell you everything you need to know to start taking advantage of this essential nutrient.
What’s the best dietary source of omega-3s?
Fatty fish, by far. One 4- to 6-ounce serving of salmon (either canned or fresh) contains about 2 grams, the amount most experts recommend per day. Tuna (fresh only) has about the same amount per serving; sardines and lake trout have slightly less.
The only problem is that some of these fish also contain mercury and PCBs. Many experts suggest limiting our consumption of tuna and farm-raised salmon to a few servings per month, so it’s best to choose wild salmon and lake trout whenever possible. (Hyman recommends vitalchoice.com as a mail-order source for healthy fish.) Grass-fed beef and wild game are also great sources if you have access to them, and “functional foods” like eggs and yogurt deliver some omega-3s as well—but not that much. A typical fortified egg provides about 100 milligrams.
Are there any good alternatives for vegetarians?
This one’s a bit tricky. Many people tout walnuts, canola oil, hemp oil, and flaxseed and oil for their omega-3s, but these foods actually don’t contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two types that are directly used in the body. What they do have is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can convert to EPA and DHA. The trouble is, not everyone is great at making this conversion.
“Right now, we don’t have a good way of knowing whose body is good at this and whose isn’t,” says David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat. The only plant source that contains usable omega-3s is algae—it’s where the fish get theirs—but it has only DHA. Still, it’s worth including plant sources in your diet, Katz says; just don’t depend on them for all of your daily omega-3s.
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