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Omega-3s from Plants

Many people know that they can get the healthful omega-3 fatty acids from fish, but the omega-3 fatty acids in seeds such as whole grains may be even more important in maintaining your health.

Omega-3 fatty acids are the least stable fats in our diet. Whole grains contain vitamin E to keep the omega-3s fresh and prevent them from turning rancid, but omega-3 fatty acids in fish are not protected by vitamin E and therefore turn rancid very quickly.

Three huge studies, The Lyon Heart Study, the GISSI Prevenzione Trial, and in The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Study have established that omega-3 fish oils help to prevent heart attacks and reduce pain and swelling in diseases such as arthritis, psoriasis, and possibly even asthma. Recent research shows that the omega-3 alpha linoleic acids in seeds, nuts, beans and whole grain may be as necessary as the omega-3s in fish oils to prevent heart attacks.

Omega-3s found in fish oils are mostly long chain fatty acids. Omega-3s in plants, particularly seeds, contain much shorter chains and are weaker than the omega-3s found in fish. However, the shorter chain omega-3s, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in leafy greens and seeds are converted to the long chain fatty acids in the human body. Long- chain fish omega-3s enter blood and cells more rapidly and produce more rapid effects than short chain plant omega-3s.

Over the long haul, humans must get omega-3s from plants, as well as fish, because all omega-3s break down very quickly when exposed to oxygen in your body, and you need large amounts of vitamin E to prevent omega-3s from turning rancid. Fish oils are extremely low in vitamin E, while virtually every seed or plant source of omega-3s is loaded also with vitamin E. So your body stores far more short chain omega-3s from plants in your body fat.

Dietary fats are classified by their chemical structure into saturated, polyunsaturated and mono unsaturated. The polyunsaturated fats are further sub-classified into omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats prevent heart attacks and high blood pressure by helping thin blood, relax arteries and prevent clotting. Over millions of years, humans have consumed a diet that contained approximately equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids, but over the past 150 years, humans have increased their consumption of omega-6s by using large amounts of vegetable oils from the seeds of corn, sunflower, safflower, cotton and soybeans. These oils are used in most prepared foods, frozen foods, margarines, French fries, potato chips, and bakery products. Today Americans eat a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that is almost 20 times higher in omega-6s than omega-3s, instead of the optimal ratio of about 2:1. To meet your needs for short chain omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, eat lots of green leafy vegetables, and seeds such as flaxseed, whole grains, beans and nuts.

Omega-3 fatty acids in wild plants, nuts and seeds. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002, Vol 11, Suppl. 6, pp S163-S173. AP Simopoulos. Simopoulos AP, Ctr Genet Nutr & Hlth, 2001 S St, NW, Suite 530, Washington,DC 20009 USA

Checked 8/13/14

May 12th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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