Do Flaxseeds Offer Sufficient Omega-3’s for Our Heart?

According to two of perhaps the most credible nutrition authorities, the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority, we should get at least half of a percent of our calories from the essential omega-3 fat ALA. That’s easy: Just have about one tablespoon a day of chia seeds or ground flaxseeds and you’re all set.

Our body can then take the short-chain ALA from our diet and elongate it into the long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA. The question, however, has long been whether our bodies can make enough EPA and DHA for optimal health. How would one determine that? Take fiber, for example. “A convincing body of literature showed an increased [heart disease] risk when diets were low in fiber,” so the Institute of Medicine came up with a recommendation for about 30 grams a day, which is an intake observed to protect against coronary heart disease and to reduce constipation. “Thus, just as [cardiovascular disease] was used to help establish an [adequate intake] for dietary fiber,” it was also used as a way to develop a recommendation for EPA and DHA, as I discuss in my video Should We Take EPA and DHA Omega-3 for Our Heart?.

With reviews published as late as 2009 suggesting fish oil capsules may help with heart disease, nutrition authorities recommended an additional 250 mg per day of preformed EPA and DHA, since, evidently, we were not making enough on our own if taking more helped. So, in addition to the one or two grams of ALA, it was suggested we should take 250 mg of preformed DHA/EPA, which can be gotten from fish or algae.

Fish is a tough one. On one hand, fish has preformed DHA and EPA, but, on the other hand, our oceans have become so polluted that seafood may also contain various pollutants, including dioxins, PCBs, pesticides like DDT, flame-retardant chemicals, and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and cadmium, all of which can negatively affect human health. Dietary exposure to PCBs, for example, is associated with increased risk of stroke in general and an almost three times higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Unless you live next to a toxic waste dump, the major  source of exposure to PCBs is fish consumption. Salmon may be the worst.

This may explain why studies in the United States have shown that just a single serving of fish a week may significantly increase one’s risk of diabetes, emphasizing that even levels of these pollutants once considered safe may “completely counteract the potential benefits of [the omega-3] fatty acids and other nutrients present in fish,” and lead to the type of metabolic disturbances that often precede type 2 diabetes. Now, one could get their daily 250 mg of preformed DHA/EPA from algae oil rather than fish oil. Algae oil is free of toxic contaminants because it is manufactured without pollutant exposure. 

Then, one could get the best of both worlds: the beneficial nutrients without the harmful contaminants. However, it was demonstrated recently that these long-chain omega-3s don’t seem to help with preventing or treating heart disease after all. Since that was the main reason we thought people should get that extra 250 mg of preformed EPA and DHA, why do I still recommend following the guidelines in my Optimum Nutrition Recommendations? Because the recommendations were not just based on heart health, but brain health, as well. See my video Should We Take DHA Supplements to Boost Brain Function?.


Other omega-3 videos include:

If the no-heart-benefit surprised you, check out Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?.

Surprised by the link with diabetes and want to learn more? See:

Food Sources of PCB Chemical Pollutants has more on PCBs, and here are additional videos on other pollutants:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Comparing Pollutant Levels Between Different Diets

The results of the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study were published recently. This study of a California birth cohort investigated the relationship between exposure to flame retardant chemical pollutants in pregnancy and childhood, and subsequent neurobehavioral development. Why California? Because California children’s exposures to these endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins are among the highest in the world.

What did they find? The researchers concluded that both prenatal and childhood exposures to these chemicals “were associated with poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition” (particularly verbal comprehension) by the time the children reached school age. “This study, the largest to date, contributes to growing evidence suggesting that PBDEs [polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flame retardant chemicals] have adverse impacts on child neurobehavioral development.” The effects may extend into adolescence, again affecting motor function as well as thyroid gland function. The effect on our thyroid glands may even extend into adulthood.

These chemicals get into moms, then into the amniotic fluid, and then into the breast milk. The more that’s in the milk, the worse the infants’ mental development may be. Breast milk is still best, but how did these women get exposed in the first place?

The question has been: Are we exposed mostly from diet or dust? Researchers in Boston collected breast milk samples from 46 first-time moms, vacuumed up samples of dust from their homes, and questioned them about their diets. The researchers found that both were likely to blame. Diet-wise, a number of animal products were implicated. This is consistent with what’s been found worldwide. For example, in Europe, these flame retardant chemical pollutants are found mostly in meat, including fish, and other animal products. It’s similar to what we see with dioxins—they are mostly found in fish and other fatty foods, with a plant-based diet offering the lowest exposure.

If that’s the case, do vegetarians have lower levels of flame retardant chemical pollutants circulating in their bloodstreams? Yes. Vegetarians may have about 25% lower levels. Poultry appears to be the largest contributor of PBDEs. USDA researchers compared the levels in different meats, and the highest levels of these pollutants were found in chicken and turkey, with less in pork and even less in beef. California poultry had the highest, consistent with strict furniture flammability codes. But it’s not like chickens are pecking at the sofa. Chickens and turkeys may be exposed indirectly through the application of sewer sludge to fields where feed crops are raised, contamination of water supplies, the use of flame-retarded materials in poultry housing, or the inadvertent incorporation of fire-retardant material into the birds’ bedding or feed ingredients.

Fish have been shown to have the highest levels overall, but Americans don’t eat a lot of fish so they don’t contribute as much to the total body burden in the United States. Researchers have compared the level of PBDEs found in meat-eaters and vegetarians. The amount found in the bloodstream of vegetarians is noticeably lower, as you can see in my video Flame Retardant Pollutants and Child Development. Just to give you a sense of the contribution of chicken, higher than average poultry eaters have higher levels than omnivores as a whole, and lower than average poultry eaters have levels lower than omnivores.

What are the PBDE levels in vegans? We know the intake of many other classes of pollutants is almost exclusively from the ingestion of animal fats in the diet. What if we take them all out of the diet? It works for dioxins. Vegan dioxin levels appear markedly lower than the general population. What about for the flame retardant chemicals? Vegans have levels lower than vegetarians, with those who’ve been vegan around 20 years having even lower concentrations. This tendency for chemical levels to decline the longer one eats plant-based suggests that food of animal origin contributes substantially. But note that levels never get down to zero, so diet is not the only source.

The USDA researchers note that there are currently no regulatory limits on the amount of flame retardant chemical contamination in U.S. foods, “but reducing the levels of unnecessary, persistent, toxic compounds in our diet is certainly desirable.”

I’ve previously talked about this class of chemicals in Food Sources of Flame Retardant Chemicals. The same foods seem to accumulate a variety of pollutants:

Many of these chemicals have hormone- or endocrine-disrupting effects. See, for example:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: