Shrinking Fish into Omega-3s

October 9, 2012 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Health, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Have you been reading any of the reports on omega-3 fatty acids? New studies weaken the pizzazz in the high-powered marketing magic. In this bit of marketing magic, a tasty filet from a whole fish disappears and is replaced by a few pills, spoonfuls or oil, or by an invisible processed food additives named in big letters on the package. Countering this trend, many of the headlines say something like “Omega-3’s don’t help reduce heart disease.” Because so many people tend to think that fish ARE omega-3s because of the magic trick, they may be thinking that eating fish is not so important anymore. The worry that this erroneous thinking may too often be the case has motivated me to write a little about fish and omega-3s.

Let me just share, in short, what the researchers found in one of the latest studies (see AJCN). They found that eating fish does lower the risk of heart failure, but taking omega-3 supplements is not so clear. One of the most fascinating bits of information that came out of this Harvard study was that they noticed that the risk was reduced the men who “consumed any amount of fish per week.” The American Heart Association recommends that people eat two servings of fatty fish per week. (Fatty fish include: salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, herring and mackerel.)

A study done in Greece, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported by Reuters on September 11, 2012 said that omega-3 fatty acids, “whether from supplements or your diet, won’t help you dodge heart disease.” So, why the confusion between studies?

This is how the omega-3 supplement craze grew: There were plenty of studies during the past two decades on eating fatty fish.  These studies have shown that populations that ate fish, had less heart disease. Because fish are such a great source of omega-3s; we in science jump straight for the fatty acids as the active ingredient – essentially saying “fish ARE omega-3s.” Do you think that we will eventually stop trying to take a whole food and shrink it into a single nutrient, pretending that this provides all the healthful ingredients? I worry that it’s not happening anytime soon. If, fish ARE omega-3s then why bother with eating fish if we prefer some other source of protein – why not just take an omega-3 supplement with our regular diet and expect a win-win? These studies are showing it doesn’t work out that way.

I’m sure that those of you who stop by this site frequently, may be familiar with our emphasis on recognizing the dangers of nutritionism. Until we can recognize that nutritionism is a fallacy in our thinking, and get the idea of eating whole foods into our hearts and our lifestyles, it seems that it bears repeating. You can’t equate a banana with a potassium supplement, just because a banana is a good source of potassium. The same goes for saying, “I don’t like oranges, so I will take a vitamin C tablet; and then I’ll get the benefits of eating an orange. The bottom line is that the orange has hundreds of nutrients – vitamins and minerals and plant nutrients (phytonutrients). It’s difficult to say what gives all the wonderful benefits of eating a diet high in plants, whole grains and fish; but it’s becoming fairly clear that you can’t get the benefits by taking a supplement of this and that. For one, all the nutrients contained in fish, plants, and grains are not available in supplements, only the ones that have gotten a reputation and media visibility.  Then, predictably, the visible name of that single nutrient will start appearing in supplements and added to your processed foods.

So what’s going on? I really like an explanation that seems to be sitting on the sidelines of the Harvard study that was reported in AJCN. Not only did they find that there was approximately a 30 percent lower risk of heart failure in those who were consuming fish, they found some interesting info on the main three types of omega-3s. We really don’t need to use those long scientific names of the three fatty acids that were studied (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) – let’s just use their abbreviations. What was interesting to me was that the Harvard researchers did not find much of an effect from EPA or DHA, the two most often sold forms of omega-3s sold as fish oil supplements. They did find a link between reduced risk of heart failure and DPA, which is made by the body from EPA and also, can be converted into DHA. What the researchers are saying is that DPA acts differently than the other omega-3 fatty acids. While they continue to try to discover what’s going on, we should continue to include fish, especially fatty fish, in our diet.

Advising people to eat vegetables, whole grains, and fish, get plenty of physical exercise and nix on smoking is not such exciting advice. I see ample evidence that too many people habitually eat too much red meat, or too much processed food, and take an omega-3 supplement or buy something, which claims an omega-3 additive. Let’s not forget; it may not be the omega-3s alone in the fish that provides the heath benefits associated with eating fish. There are many different answers to what may be causing the association with fish. Some that quickly come to mind are: 1) If you’re eating fish instead of red meat, maybe you’re getting less of something in red meat that is a harmful culprit in heart health risk. 2) If you’re eating fish instead of other forms of animal protein, maybe you’re consuming fewer calories. 3) If you’re eating fish, maybe you’re making other healthy eating choices as well, on average. This new Harvard study is looking at epidemiological research, after all. It doesn’t prove anything. It tells us that there is a relationship. If it’s pretty clear that eating fish is related to better heart health, then why not just eat fish?

Some of you have told me that fish is expensive. Since I just had canned salmon on my lunch salad today, it’s popping in my mind that fish does not have to be expensive. One of my favorite comfort foods is salmon patties. You can make them a thousand ways, but I just use a can of ‘bones in’ pink salmon, a whipped egg, breadcrumbs, dill weed, a little Greek yogurt, sometimes lemon juice if I have a lemon on hand and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Fry in a non-stick skillet with a little extra virgin olive oil. I sometimes serve it with minced cucumber, dill weed, a light sprinkle of salt, and lemon juice, mixed into Greek yogurt. Served on a whole-wheat sandwich thin, with lettuce, tomato and pickle, even the children will think it’s great. If you have canned salmon sitting in the pantry, you may be surprised with how many nutritious, quick, inexpensive meals you can come up with. Ditto for canned tuna!

Despite loud marketing claims, you can’t shrink all the benefits fish gives you into an omega-3 pill, a spoonful of oil, or an “Omega-3 added” claim on a package of some processed food. So hang in there with the whole food! Look around for some tasty ways to include fish in your meals.