September 5th, 2013

Omega-3 Fats: Fish or Flax?

After years of thinking “fat” is unhealthy it is refreshing to learn some fats are not only healthful but essential! So it is with omega-3 fats. Scientists use the term omega-3 to describe the chemical make-up of the fat. As eaters, we are more interested in why omega-3s are good for us and what they look like on our dinner plate.

shutterstock_111147896Omega-3s are healthy fats because they help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and may reduce the risk of cancer and arthritis. These anti-inflammatory fats are also essential for development of the brain and nervous system and may help improve memory and manage depression.

There are two categories of omega-3s; animal-based and plant-based. Animal-based, specifically from fatty fish, provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).These fats are particularly useful in reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Their benefit was first noticed among Northern native people, who had low rates of heart disease while consuming plenty of fatty fish.

Fish highest in DHA and EPA are salmon, mackerel, sardines, char, trout, black cod (sablefish), anchovies and herring. Canada’s Food Guide recommends we eat two servings of fish per week. Alternatively, one can use fish oil capsules which provide approximately 500 mg (combined) DHA and EPA per day. This dose approximates the amount of fish oil present in two servings of fish. Some scientists recommend a ratio of 2 to 1 EPA to DHA. This might look like a 500 mg capsule that provides about 330 mg of EPA and 160 mg of DHA. (Note: vegetarians can find these same fats in capsules containing algae-based oil.) As well, a number of food products are now being fortified with DHA and EPA.

Plant-based omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It is found in walnuts, flax, chia, canola and soybean oil and some whole grains. The daily requirement is 1100 milligrams per day for women and 1600 milligrams for men. This amount is actually not difficult to reach. One ounce of walnuts provides 2600 mg while two slices of whole grain bread, spread with two teaspoons of soft margarine (made with canola oil) provides 1600 mg. One tablespoon of flax seeds contains 2400 mg. Grind the seeds to make the oils easy to absorb. Add ground flax to cereal, smoothies, yogurt or baked goods.

When it comes to omega-3 fats you don’t have to choose between fish and flax. Enjoy all the sources of these healthy fats!


Barbara Allan,
Registered Dietician
Certified Diabetes Educator

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