Monday, March 2, 2009

The American Heart Association Needs to Check Its Omega-3 Math

I have heard the following recommendations made by the American Heart Association repeatedly for years now. And I hear them parroted everywhere by well-intended medical experts who, it seems, did not stop to check the math on which the recommendations are based:

Population Recommendation
Patients without documented coronary heart disease (CHD)
Eat a variety of (preferably fatty) fish at least twice a week.
Include oils and foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (flaxseed, canola
and soybean oils; flaxseed and walnuts).

Patients with documented CHD Consume about 1 g of EPA+DHA per day,
preferably from fatty fish. EPA+DHA in capsule form could be
considered in consultation with the physician.

Patients who need to lower triglycerides 2 to 4 grams of EPA+DHA per
day provided as capsules under a physician's care.

Patients taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from
capsules should do so only under a physician's care. High intakes
could cause excessive bleeding in some people.

Evidence from prospective secondary prevention studies suggests that
taking EPA+DHA ranging from 0.5 to 1.8 grams per day (either as fatty
fish or supplements) significantly reduces deaths from heart disease
and all causes. For alpha-linolenic acid, a total intake of 1.5–3
grams per day seems beneficial.

I couldn't sit back anymore. Ellen Reiss Goldfarb, RD, a member of my inCYST Network for Women With PCOS collaborated with me on hopefully setting the record straight. We hope it helps, especially to get a mathematically-correct set of recommendations out to the public so they can go grocery shopping with a better sense of empowerment.

Regarding the omega-3 recommendations recently discussed, you all may want to consider that there are several contradictions within that make it very difficult (maybe even impossible) for the average American to follow them. As dietitians, it is important that we understand this math so that we help, not confuse or hurt, people who look to us for advice.

First of all, we are telling people that they are not to eat more than 3 grams of omega-3's per day unless they are under a physician's care. However, if you try to get 1.8 mg of combined EPA + DHA combined, in the form of food first, 3 ounces of Alaskan salmon, which contains 384 mg of EPA plus DHA, would have to be eaten in a DAILY QUANTITY OF 14 ounces in order to get there. Are you really saying that if you're eating enough fish to get the amount of omega-3's we recommend, that the MD has to manage it??? You are unnecessarily putting yourself out of business if you are!!!

Secondly, given those numbers for salmon, the densest seafood source of omega-3's, there is no way eating fish just a few times a week is going to get you to the level of omega-3 intake these recommendations are making. It is so frustrating watching colleagues parrot these recommendations and wondering if we're the only ones who've actually sat down and done this math..

We also went to three popular fish oil brands and calculated out how many pills you would need to get the upper level of DHA + EPA recommended. Two of those, Nordic Naturals and Carlson's, if taken at the level needed to get there, would also place your client at levels you say a physician needs to manage.

Realistically and honestly, how many of you are really doing that?

With regards to bleeding, in all of our collective years actively recommending fish oil, only one client encountered a bleeding problem. The people at greatest risk for that are people who are on medications such as coumadin...and if you work closely with a physician who "gets it"--the dose of that medication can be dropped as EPA levels rise and help normalize blood clotting function. Always start low, titrate up, look closely for symptoms in people not on contraindicated medicatoins and let the MD check blood levels in people who are...and work very hard to minimize omega-6 intake. You'll get a lot more bang out of your omega-3 buck if you focus on the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio than if you only think about one.

If you don't know how to use omega-3's to promote health, you may actually CREATE health risks for your clients, which I don't think any of you want to do.

Here are the numbers from our calculations for your reference.

EPA + DHA, total mg
3 ounces salmon 384 mg
Nordic Naturals 550 mg
Carlson's 500 mg
Barlean's 600 mg

Total omega-3 content
3 ounces salmon 3250 mg
Nordic Naturals 690 mg
Carlson's 600 mg
Barlean's 780 mg

Amount needed to meet n-3's needed to meet upper DHA + EPA recommendation/total omega-3 content of that amount
3 ounces salmon 14 oz DAILY/15.2 total gms n-3
Nordic Naturals 3.27 capsules/3.6 gm total n-3
Carlson's 3.6 capsules/6.0 gm total n-3
Barlean's 3.0 capsules/2.3 gm total n-3

Monika M. Woolsey, MS, RD
Ellen Reiss Goldfarb, RD

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