The Omega Conundrum: Are You Getting Enough of This Essential Fatty Acid?


Craig Zalvan, a scientist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research on Long Island, published research last month that suggests a plant-centric diet battles acid reflux better than popular medicines.

He suggests eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. Foods to avoid? Dairy, eggs, beef, chicken, fish, pork, coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, greasy and fried food, spicy foods, fatty foods and alcohol.

Let’s call it the Serf Diet. Not much need for a cookbook!

Luckily, there are tweaks we can make to our eating habits that aren’t quite so draconian. That requires generally leaning toward the Mediterranean Diet, which features lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, small amounts of meat, large amounts of fish and plenty of good bread, all washed down with a modest amount of red wine.

(OK, I added the red wine part.)

Beyond curing your acid reflux, the Med Diet gives you a balance between omega-3s and omega-6s, two fats our bodies need but don’t have the enzymes to produce, hence the term “essential” fatty acids.

Unlike most fats, which provide energy or are stored by the body for later use, omega-3s and 6s are biologically active and play big roles in processes like blood clotting and inflammation. Inflammation helps protect our bodies from infection and injury – the swelling around a sprained ankle, say – but it can also contribute to disease when the inflammatory response goes overboard.

Excess inflammation plays a role in everything from heart disease to diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and many types of cancers. Reduced inflammation is credited with lowering  the risk of osteoporosis and bone loss, reducing anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder and improving cognitive function.

Food historians say humans once consumed equal amounts of the two fats, the omega-3s from foods like fish, nuts and dark green vegetables, the omega-6s from dairy and poultry. But the rise of packaged foods after World War II led to a surge in omega-6 fats in the western diet, largely from the use of vegetable oils.

The average American now consumes 15 times more omega-6s than 3s.

(Feeling puffy? Now you know.)

Boosting your omega-3 intake isn’t hard. Here are a few tips to get your omega balance down to a healthier 4 to 1 ratio:

Add more fish: Especially fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, trout and halibut, sardines and fresh tuna, but oysters and shrimp are good, too. Oh, and caviar.

Check the oil: Canola is the best bet for frying and sautéing; use olive oil for sauces and dressings. Check the label on everything else.

Go green: Kale, spinach, broccoli and brussels sprouts are all high in omega-3s. Ditto cauliflower. And avocados.

Watch the eggs: Farmers increase the omega-3s in egg yolks by feeding their hens flaxseed and fish oil. That’s good. But eating one small piece of salmon a week provides more omega-3s than two eggs a day. And a fraction of the cholesterol.

Perfect omega-3 menu: Spinach salad with walnuts in an olive oil-based vinaigrette, salmon cakes with ginger sauce, flax seed-chocolate cookies for dessert.

Don’t forget the wine.

OMEGA-3 SOURCES: Anchovies, arugula, baby food, basil, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, canola oil, capers, caviar, chia seeds, cloves, cod liver oil, edamame, egg yolks, flax seeds, fruit juice, grape leaves, halibut, hemp seeds, herring, kale, macadamia nuts, mackerel, margarine, mayonnaise, milk, mint, mustard, oatmeal, oregano, oysters, pine nuts, pizza, pumpkin seeds, salad dressing, salmon, salmon oil, sardines, sea vegetables, shad, soy milk, spinach, squash, tarragon, trout, turnip greens, tuna, walnuts, wheat germ, white fish, yogurt.