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Roly Poly Fishheads,
Eat 'Em Up! Yum.

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed in the November 19, 2005 issue
Reprinted on page 11 in the June 20-21, 2009 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health, Wellness & Beauty, Medicine Matters.

I knew the day would come. The headcheese my dad once made from freshly caught Humber River carp has returned to haunt me. In those days, I preferred seaweed to that headcheese, but now it seems that everyone else thinks it's good for me. Same goes for those little greasy capsules full of cod-liver oil mom kept in the fridge, that made you burp "Grenadier Pond Gas". Only now do I find out the stuff was full of omega-3. Technically, fish do not produce omega-3 fatty acids. How much omega-3 is actually found in various fish depends largely on feeding behavior and species. You see, fish go around eating green algae, which are the true source of their omega-3. The more algae they eat, the more omega-3. The omega-3 found in "farmed" salmon depends on what is fed to them. Dried grain based fish food is cheap but contains little omega-3.

What is the big deal about omega-3? It really is about learning to think differently about fat. Two important groups of fatty acids, which we require, but for the most part cannot manufacture ourselves, are omega-3 and omega-6. They are essential for survival. For the most part the omega-6 group, such as linoleic acid (LA) can cause inflammation and blood clots. They do this by producing arachidonic acid (ARA) which then goes on to form prostaglandins. They are found in grains and in most of the oils that we commonly use to cook and deep-fry with, e.g. corn, cottonseed, sesame and sunflower oil. We also ingest them when we eat animals fed on them and processed foods prepared with them.

The omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial. They are "good" fats, having not only anti-inflammatory effects, but reduce bad cholesterol and lower blood pressure. In addition, they may protect us from developing certain conditions related to cancer, atherosclerosis and memory problems. Two key members of this group are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). They are both found in algae and cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel and herring. Fresh seaweed and dark green leafy foods also are sources. DHA is extremely important for normal brain development and functioning, and seems to provide us with a protective effect against heart disease and some cancers. Deficiencies have been implicated in depression and Alzheimer's, but also with common allergies and dry skin. Flaxseed is an excellent plant source of omega 3.

Our diets should have about a 3:1 ratio of omega 6 to 3. In the last 100 years this ratio has skyrocketed to anywhere from 10:1 to as high as 100:1. Some people feel that the parallel with increasing heart disease, allergies and bowel problems is no coincidence. Having a large excess of omega 6 creates problems. It promotes inflammation and blot-clotting for one thing. It also blocks the small ability our body does have to produce DHA. After reading this, some of you will opt for the quick fix typical in our society. I do not condone omega-3 pill supplementation for two reasons. Firstly, omega-3 fatty acids as a group are highly unstable and prone to oxidation, a process that produces harmful free radicals. They should be ingested as fresh as possible. The far more important message is that we need to change our eating habits, to change the ratio. Improving omega-3 intake is far less challenging than decreasing your omega-6 intake. It appears confusing at first, but a little education goes a long way. I have definitely changed my eating habits, but omega-3 or not, fish headcheese still remains off my list. Happy Father's Day to Dads everywhere, enjoy your BBQed salmon!

Related resources:

Omega-3 fatty acid from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids from American Heart Association. "Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of or who have cardiovascular disease. We recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week."
Omega-3 fatty acids from University of Maryland Medical Center. "They are essential to human health but cannot be manufactured by the body. For this reason, omega-3 fatty acids must be obtained from food. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other marine life such as algae and krill, certain plants, and nut oils."
Good Fat, Bad Fat: The Facts About Omega-3 by Colette Bouchez, WebMD Feature, Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD. "... omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods including walnuts, some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies. The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain and other rheumatoid problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer's disease."
Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid from MayoClinic. "Evidence from several studies has suggested that amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of fish or fish oil supplements lowers triglycerides, slows the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques ("hardening of the arteries"), lowers blood pressure slightly, as well as reduces the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known heart disease. However, high doses may have harmful effects ..."

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