Omega-3: food for (happy) thought

November 22, 2010

As you do your Thanksgiving shopping this year, notice how many products on the supermarket shelves say “omega-3 fortified” on the label. Foods ranging from pasta to eggs to peanut butter are now enriched with this fatty acid. A stroll down the supplement aisle reveals rows of bottles containing omega-3-rich fish oil capsules.

Should you fill your cart with these products, or is this just another nutritional fad? What is the science behind the omega-3 craze? Just what are omega-3s and why should we care? Download Full Image

Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. “These are the most interesting nutrients. Fatty acids are very powerful in terms of health effects,” says Bonnie Beezhold, a professor of nutrition in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU’s Polytechnic Campus.

Fatty acids are components of most of the fat in your body. Although people often think of fats as something to avoid, everyone needs a certain amount of fat to stay healthy. The human brain, for example, is about 60 percent fat. The next time someone calls you a “fathead,” consider it a compliment!

There are two types of fatty acids that your body cannot manufacture on its own—you have to consume them. These are the essential fatty acids called omega-3 and omega-6.

“In our ancestral diet, we got pretty much of a balance between these two types,” says Beezhold. “Scientists believe it was about a two-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, or at least less than four-to-one.”

Modern diets, however, are vastly different than those of our prehistoric ancestors. A typical American’s diet today contains a 15- or 20-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat.

“Today, we eat less fish, and we eat meat produced in a factory system. Instead of grazing on grass, these animals are fed corn and soy, which are major omega-6 plant sources, particularly corn. So their meat has lower levels of omega-3 and higher levels of omega-6 fat. Many animals are confined in small spaces and are not free to roam, which increases the fat content as well as the fatty acid proportions of their flesh,” explains Beezhold.

An inflammatory topic

This imbalance has major effects on health.

Fatty acids are essential components of the membranes of every cell in your body. These cell membranes form a protective barrier between the cell and the rest of the body. Membranes regulate what goes into and passes out of the cell. To be effective, these membranes must be strong but also flexible. The structure of omega-3s contribute greatly to the flexibility of the membrane.

The fatty acids in cells also produce eicosanoids. These are signaling molecules, kind of like hormones that work locally. They regulate activities like platelet aggregation and the immune response.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fats both produce eicosanoids that regulate inflammation. Inflammation occurs in response to injury or infection, and as we have all experienced, it involves swelling, heat, redness and pain. It’s not pleasant, but it’s important.

“When you get an injury or infection, you need inflammation. It’s an immune response that ultimately repairs the body. Omega-6s generally make the eicosanoids that promote inflammation. Eventually there’s a resolution promoted by anti-inflammatory eicosanoids that come from omega-3s,” says Beezhold.

A little bit of inflammation is necessary, but too much can wreak havoc on the body.

“All kinds of diseases have an inflammatory component. Our major chronic diseases, like heart disease and arthritis, have inflammation as an underlying process,” says Beezhold, who is particularly interested in the relationship between inflammation and mood.

“When inflammatory chemicals increase, they can also impact the brain. Research shows that there’s such a thing as neuroinflammation,” she says.

She notes that people with heart disease have a higher risk of depression, possibly due to the same inflammatory mechanisms. And studies show that depressed people have lower concentrations of long-chain omega-3s in their blood.
One of the best food sources of omega-3s is fish. Research surveying large populations show that low fish consumption is associated with prevalence of depression. For her Ph.D. dissertation, Beezhold conducted a small community survey on fish consumption and mood. She found, not surprisingly, that fish eaters reported better moods than folks who shunned seafood.

Her results made her curious. Are vegetarians – who don’t eat fish – more depressed than omnivores? She decided to conduct a study with Carol Johnston, director of ASU’s nutrition program. They surveyed Seventh Day Adventists in the Phoenix and Santa Barbara areas. This group is typically about half vegetarian, so the researchers could survey equal numbers of vegetarians and omnivores from a relatively similar population.

“We went into this thinking, ‘This is going to be a slam dunk. People who don’t eat fish can’t possibly have as good a mood as those who do.’ Interestingly, it wasn’t even close. The vegetarians reported substantially better moods than the omnivores,” says Beezhold.

The skinny on fatty acids

To understand how this could be true, it helps to understand more about plant and animal sources of fatty acids. Both plants and animals provide both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However, plants only provide the short-chain fatty acid variety with 18 carbons. Animals provide the long-chain variety containing 20 or more carbons.

Research shows that short-chain fatty acids are important in their own right, but not nearly as important as the long-chain variety. It is the long-chain fatty acids, for example, that form eicosanoids and regulate inflammation.

Enzymes in your body can convert short-chain into long-chain fatty acids. However, the omega-6s and omega-3s compete for the same enzymes to do the conversion. When you eat animal sources of these fatty acids, conversion is not needed and these are preferred.

Although the vegetarians in the study weren’t eating fish, they also weren’t eating many sources of long-chain omega-6s (except in dairy products). So the level of long-chain omega-6s may be more important. And while vegetarians typically have a higher intake of the short-chain plant omega-6s than even omnivores, they also eat plenty of the omega-3 variety as well. Apparently they were able to synthesize the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids they needed.

Beezhold cautions, “This is just one study and we surveyed a special group—the Seventh Day Adventists—who are typically very health conscious. Thus, results may not be generalizable to the whole population.”

To get more information, she has conducted a randomized, controlled trial in which she changed the protein sources and then compared the mood of three groups of omnivores. Her results should be available soon.

Based on what we do know about omega-3s, what does all of this mean for your diet?

“If you’re a vegetarian and you’re eating plenty of plant sources of omega-3, you probably don’t have to worry about mood,” says Beezhold. Even so, vegetarians who want to increase their plant-based sources of omega-3s can incorporate more walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, canola oil, and leafy green vegetables into their diets to help to balance their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Her advice for omnivores is to eat more fish and reduce consumption of meat and poultry, most of which is raised in factory farms. People who don’t like fish can aim to eat more grass-fed beef and other sustainably-raised meats and poultry, which contain higher levels of omega-3s.

Additionally, omnivores who don’t like fish can take fish-oil supplements. Beezhold says supplements that include vitamin E in them may reduce the incidence of fish-flavored burps.

And, while it is not as important as changing the balance of animal products, omnivores also should increase their consumption of the omega-3-rich plant foods mentioned above.
Beezhold says she herself is an “enthusiastic omnivore” who tries to eat fish as often as possible. But she admits it’s not always easy.

“Fresh fish can be more expensive and difficult to prepare, and there are environmental contamination problems associated with fish. Wild fish that are high in omega-3 fats unfortunately can also be high in mercury. While farm-raised fish are cheaper and more available, they can be high in other toxins like dioxins.”

She says that ultimately we need to take a big-picture look at our food and how we raise it. “We really need to think about our agricultural methods. We can produce a lot of food cheaply, but not without adversely impacting our own health.”

Get more information about seafood, health and the environment at

The">">http://www.mont... study on vegetarians and mood was published in the June 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal. Read the full study at">">

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Sun Devils facing UCLA on Senior Day

November 22, 2010

Head Coach Dennis">"... Erickson

Opening Statement:
"Obviously, [UCLA has] had an up-and-down season like us. In a lot of ways we are very similar. They are in a position where they have to win their next two games to go to a bowl game. They have a lot of talent and they are young in some areas, particularly defensively. They have done a good job of recruiting and are playing with some young players. They have some outstanding players like Rahim Moore, who we tried to recruit a few years ago. He's probably the best safety in the country. He is a heck of an athlete. Their offense is led by Johnathan Franklin. They run the football in the pistol. They have made a commitment to doing that. Their offensive front is very senior oriented. It's a football game that is big for both football teams. Having a week off, I would like to think we would come off the bye a little better than we did last time. Hopefully we are rested up. We practiced this morning because of the schedule this week. We normally give them Monday off because of classes. It's good that it's over with, that's a pretty good thing. I threatened the players that if they didn't practice hard we would do it everyday. Boy, they came out and practiced hard." Download Full Image

On Brock">">... Osweiler:
"He has had reps with the first team all week. As soon as he got healthy with the back he has taken reps with the ones. Don't put anything into it. We just let him do some things to see if he's getting better. Steven [Threet] is still the starter and that is not going to change."

"Brock [Osweiler] may play, but that depends on how it goes. We will see how Steven">">S... Threet is playing. Right now there is no plan to put him in specifically."

"Brock [Osweiler] has looked good in practice. Ever since he got back from the injury he has gotten better and better all the time. You can see he is a lot healthier and is throwing the ball a lot more accurately. He is making better decisions because he is getting turns. He had a good week of practice during the bye week."

On last home game for senior class:
"We talked about that the other day. These are always difficult games for the seniors that are playing. If you look at Saia [Falahola] and [Gerald] Munns, [Jon] Hargis, Kerry">">Kerry Taylor, [Thomas] Weber and Max">">Max Tabach, they have all contributed. It's a good group. Not a very big group but one that has contributed ever since they have been here. It's a good group and we want them to go out the right way. It's important that we all play well and let the seniors go out well in their last game at home. That's huge for us."

On leadership of Jon">">Jon Hargis:
"I could talk forever about it. You look back at his career and you can do it with a smile. The first year I was here he was a defensive tackle that played. He played quite a bit on a team that won ten games. We moved him to offense and he made that changed. We all know about the knee surgery and all that he has fought through. He is going to play in that football game on Saturday. He has earned that right. How much, I'm not sure but he certainly deserves to play. He is what Sun Devil football is about in my opinion."

On the development of Trevor">">... Hankins:
"He has come a long way. He spent a lot of time becoming better in the off-season. He has punted extremely well for us and has made a difference in the field position and what has happened the last couple years. He has punted really well for us as well as being a good holder. He walked on and earned a scholarship and has done really well."

On Kerry">">Kerry Taylor's development:
"He has really developed. You look at it now and you almost kick yourself in the rear-end for not red-shirting him. At that time we didn't have much depth and he was a polished receiver coming out of high school. Immediately he was mature enough to help us. The development in the last year as well as what we are doing offensively has really helped Kerry [Taylor]. We move him around and he fits in the slot real well. He makes plays for us and he has had a great year. The improvement from last fall to this fall is unbelievable. I commend him for that. Because through the first three years he probably didn't have the career he wanted but he has worked hard. He has improved tremendously in blocking. He has made a 360-degree turnaround in how he plays the game. I am real proud of how he plays the game."

On UCLA's passing game:
"Their passing game, a lot of times, it is seven-man protection. They keep their tight end in and have two receivers. It's hard to get to them because of that. We have to create some blitzes and some of the ones we use can go up against seven-man protection. It's not always pass-blitzes. Because of what they do, which is primarily running, we have to create some blitzes in our package that is good against what they do in the run game. We will mix it up."

On Craig">">Craig Bray:
"Craig is very smart and understands the game. He has been around a long time and he understands the system. He is not a guy that changes things a lot. He spends time on things and if he sees something he likes then he is going to add it. He is very demanding of his players and the defensive assistants. If you do something wrong, he is going to tell you how it is. He doesn't sugarcoat things. Just when you think something is good, it is not. He loves the game and has been very good for this program. He is a great motivator and we have played good defense for the most part for the four years that we have been here."

"There are times where he is satisfied, but not very often. Like all of us. That is kind of how we were raised in this business and we have been together for a long time. He expects a great performance every week. There can be areas where we play extremely well and areas where we don't play real well. Obviously, he is in charge of the whole thing. He is satisfied at times, but I have seen him unsatisfied more than satisfied. That's how I like him and that's when he is at his best. The players know what the expectations are and they are very high."