By Christopher Mohr, Ph.D., R.D. , December 12, 2013 - 8:01am
What if you turned on the news and heard that the world was flat? And, to support that bold claim, the news anchor shared the results of one study. Would you believe it at first pass?
While this example may seem far-fetched, something similar happened recently in the nutrition world: a new research review proposing upper intake limits for omega-3 fats sparked headlines that caused many to think the message was “dump out your fish-oil supplements.”
The review study, published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, cautioned against “excessive intakes” of omega-3 fats. More specifically, the authors cited multiple studies to conclude that while omega-3s are undisputedly beneficial to heart health, consuming very high amounts may actually hinder immune function and increase risk of prostate cancer.
Let’s take a step back.
Omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids. This means that your body needs them to work normally, but it doesn’t make them so they must instead be eaten. (Most nutrition surveys show most Americans aren’t getting enough omega-3 fats in their diets.)
The omega-3 fats include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The best food sources of EPA and DHA are wild, cold-water, oily fish: salmon, sardines, anchovies, tuna and trout. ALA comes primarily from plant foods, such as flax, hemp, chia, nuts and green leafy veggies. And, a just-published study found high levels of all three types in organic whole milk.
After more than 25,000 research studies, there are ample data showing omega-3 fats are more than just necessary and have a number of added benefits to your health. The two that have the most research support for improving health are EPA and DHA, though ALA is important as well. There is well-established evidence that regular intake of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA can actually lower triglycerides, may help lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease and may boost immunity by supporting B cell function, among other potential benefits.
Understandably, as with many hot-button nutrients, omega-3s’ super potential has led to much interest in supplementation and fortification: the omega-3 supplement industry is booming and supermarket shoppers can now find many foods fortified with these fats, including eggs, milk, peanut butter, margarine and yogurt. The authors of this new review study call for establishment of a dietary reference intake (DRI) for omega-3s, due to concern that overzealous consumption may result in adverse health effects. They propose setting a daily value (DV) and specifying a maximum amount beyond which consumption might not be safe. No specific values were proposed in this paper. And the takeaway seems to be that we should keep seeking out healthy sources of omega-3s, especially from whole food (natural) sources such as oily fish, but should be cautious and moderate with supplements and fortified foods until clearer parameters are advised.
The review’s conclusions have certainly sparked much debate. “If diets rich in omega-3s were bad for humans, we would expect to see poor health in populations like the Japanese, Norwegians or especially people like the Greenland Eskimos—who routinely eat 9 to 14 grams of omega-3s each day—yet we see quite the opposite,” says Doug Bibus, Ph.D., renowned omega-3 expert and faculty member at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. Nine to 14 grams a day of omega-3 fats is equivalent to eating about 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of wild salmon. Daily. The Greenland Eskimo population has the lowest cardiovascular mortality in the world.
So How Much is Safe?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a safe intake of EPA and DHA (combined total) is up to 3 grams daily. European guidelines state that a combined intake of up to 5 grams per day of EPA and DHA is safe. Since the average American consumes only around a quarter of a gram per day, there’s no need for most of us to be alarmed by scary headlines like “Hold the Salmon.”
What Do We Do From Here?
Look at the big picture: the majority of data suggests you should regularly get omega-3s in your diet. From food, this means eating cold-water, oily fish—like those listed above—at least twice per week. This is in line with the American Heart Association’s recommendations. Further, include plant sources of omega-3s, such as walnuts, almonds, chia, hemp and flax seed, in your diet. And, be sure to talk with your doctor before adding a supplement to your diet or piling on the fortified foods.