Monday, November 10, 2008

Omega-3: How to Get It, What to Avoid

In the most recent edition of Health magazine, there was a small blurb on the potential danger of eating tilapia. Before I became a vegetarian, I ate tilapia. A LOT of tilapia, mostly because it was cheap. The taste was OK, too, but I liked the price tag more than anything.

The article, “Wake Forest researchers say popular fish contains potentially dangerous fatty acid combination,” makes a compelling argument against eating tilapia if you have “heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an ‘exaggerated inflammatory response.’ Inflammation is known to cause damage to blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin, and the digestive tract.”

As you know, I have severe degenerative arthritis (That’s what my ortho docs keep calling it, but it seems redundant to me. Isn’t simply “arthritis” enough to put a wince in your eye? Does it have to be “severe” and “degenerative,” too? It’s like salt in a wound. Yeah, I get the picture, doc. It ain’t good.) Anyway, as a person with arthritis and who knows many, many other people with arthritis, I try to stay on top of the latest science involving arthritis pain and prevention, and this article is another hammer in the toolbox, so to speak.

But there’s a disturbing catch-22 in all this information, that has to do with what I said about the price of tilapia. It’s cheap. “This ability to feed the fish inexpensive foods, together with their capacity to grow under almost any condition, keeps the market price for the fish so low that it is rapidly becoming a staple in low-income diets.”

So yet again, people with the least access to healthy food are getting screwed. “Eat more fish!” they hear health professionals say. And so they do. Only it’s not going to help them with their heart disease, arthritis or other ailments because of the fish’s lop-sided combination of omega-3 and omega-6. It can potentially hurt them.

In a Mayo Clinic article, sent to me by my blogging partner, Barbara Berkeley: “Omega-3 in fish. How eating fish helps your heart,” salmon and trout have a much better omega-3 record, but both are more expensive. What to do? Perhaps flaxseed is a less-expensive alternative to fish.

Dr. Dean Ornish, a vegetarian, said this about omega-3s in an interview with PBS Frontline (a very good in-depth interview if you have a few minutes to read it): “The omega-3 fatty acids, for example, can reduce sudden cardiac death by 50 to 80 percent. My mentor when I was doing my training at Mass. General, Dr. Alexander Leaf, discovered this 20 years ago. Just 3 grams a day of fish oil or flaxseed oil can reduce sudden cardiac death by 50 to 80 percent and lower your triglycerides, [it] can reduce inflammation of arthritis, many other benefits. But you don't need more than that. Just a little can provide what you need without getting too much, so you can get the benefits without getting too many calories.”

Sounds good. But will people who need to hear this message the most get the message from the medical community? My fingers are crossed.

Back to arthritis for a minute, while I’m all for the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3, my immediate priority is reducing inflammation of arthritis any way I can. So I add ground flaxseed to many kinds of foods. (My favorite? Sugar-free chocolate pudding, of course.). I’ve been using flaxseed for almost a year in conjunction with exercise, Synvisc injections, massage, chiropractic and weight management to help control my arthritis pain and inflammation. I can’t say for sure it works, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting anything, either, so I’ll stick with it.

So my questions today are, do you make a conscious effort to eat foods rich in omega-3 and for what purpose? If you have arthritis, how do you treat the pain and inflammation?

Looking forward to your comments! You always teach me so much.

9 comments:

  1. Omega fat ratios are important, but so are absolute values. The ratio for olive oil of omega 6:omega 3 is 12.85:1, but each tablespoon of olive oil only has 1318 mg of omega 6. The ratio for corn oil is 3.96:1, but the amount of omega 6 in each tablespoon is 3217 mg. For me, olive oil is a much better choice to keep omega 6 totals down.

    I find my best strategy is to keep the absolute amount of total omega 6 intake down and take an omega 3 supplement (fish oil for me) to try to bring the ratio back into line.

    The information on tilapia is still alarming to me though, because it indicates that the information on tilapia in nutritiondata.com is incorrect for farmed tilapia and that the amount of omega six fatty acids in tilapia are significantly higher than I thought.

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  2. After reading what you've written here I scooted over to Sr. Weil to see what he has to say on the tilapia issue. My youngest son has asthma, which we are learning about since his diagnosis a few months ago, and no one has said anything about diet other than he should take vitamin C and try to bolster his immune system (which is on the low end of normal). I need to learn more about the omega six fatty acids and oh so many other nutritional things. Thank you for the (er...) food for thought.

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  3. I don't have arthritis but am worried about getting it and would like to prevent it (my father has it pretty bad). I use ground flax and olive oil but I haven't been super consistent, so reading this makes me want to do better. Thanks!

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  4. Have you tried the supplement SAM-E ? It made my herniated disks in my neck feel much better.

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  5. Hey!! We must be on the same wavelength. I blogged about this today too! Adding healthy fats is the healthy habit of the week on my blog!

    Anyway, yes, I too have "severe degenerative arthritis" and a LOT of pain. Here is what I am doing (and my pain is getting better but that could be just from losing weight).

    1. glucosamine and chondroitin, 1500mg/day in 2 doses. I use the vegetarian kind since I am allergic to shellfish.

    2. turmeric capsules to lower inflammation. I use Turmeric Force brand.

    3. Advil when needed.

    4. Tart Cherry concentrate in hot tea when the pain is bad. This really works.

    5. Celedrin cream rubbed into my knees before I bike, sometimes. Not sure how much this helps and probably won't buy more when I run out.

    I also bike on the recumbent bike to strengthen my knees and I do a few PT-type exercises to help strengthen the knees. Standing on one foot without holding onto anything, once a day for 30 seconds, helps also.

    Hope you find some of this helpful!

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  6. Lynn~

    I got the Turmeric Force online... not sure where but if you google it you can look for the best price.

    The tart cherry concentrate I got from a local farmer who grows cherries. http://www.tasteatreat.com/products.src?PID=5

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  7. I am an asthma person too - I had a bad week starting 9/18/08 and am having another one this week.

    I need to go back to basics to figure out if what I am doing it helping or hurting me. I guess I need to sort of regroup - food, environment, meds, lifestyle.

    Your posting came at a good time for me.

    I felt very alone in my maintenance blogging for a very long time. Like a lone voice that was not saying what the other bloggers (mostly weight loss) were saying. I am very thankful for your blogs - I don't feel nearly as alone. I feel validated in what I feel, write and do.

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  8. I try to boost my Omega 3 to help my cholesterol levels. I've been actively working on it for almost a year now. My numbers have improved to acceptable levels, with the exception of my HDL: it's a little too low.

    I have about another 3 months to bring it up, until my doctor starts talking medication. I have atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure +50 lbs ago, and my mother had diabetes, so my risk of further complications is already increased. I don't need bad cholesterol to boot.

    As I sit here, I'm eating a bowl of oatmeal. As it does every morning, it contains rolled oats, flax seed meal, extra oat bran, olive oil, blueberries, and cinnamon (read that it can lower triglycerides and LDL!) I also take Omega 3 gel capsules.

    Thank you for the information!

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  9. Isn't it great that we're even talking about various healthy fats - omega 3 this and that? I mean, a few years ago I barely said "hi" to my food before devouring the most fattening thing I could get my hands on. And now I've become a true health nut - eating salmon a few days a week, counting my fruit/veggie servings, etc. Let's focus on THAT accomplishment - that we're even thinking about food in this manner.

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