A nutritionist weighs in on the latest research about these essential fatty acids.
You know that omega-3 essential fatty acids can do your heart and brain a world of good. But new research suggests that a high intake may be linked to an increased risk of diabetes. So what does that mean, exactly?
The honest answer: We don't know. For the French study, which was presented at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes General Assembly, researchers tracked the omega-3 intake of more than 70,000 women. They found that those with the highest intake were more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes over a 14-year period.
But when the scientists looked more closely at different types of omega-3s, DPA (docosapentaenoic acid)—which is found in some fish and other animal foods—stood out. Women who consumed the most DPA had a 45% greater chance of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes compared to women who consumed the least. For overweight women, the risk climbed to 54%. In these women's diets, meat was the top source of DPA.
But more research is needed, and many questions remain unanswered, including the potential impact of other foods the women ate, or didn't eat. For example, after a 2011 study found a link between omega-3-rich seafood and type 2 diabetes, experts speculated that if a person's antioxidant intake was low, omega-3s could make tissue more susceptible to oxidation, and trigger a domino effect that could lead to type 2 diabetes.
In other words: It's your whole diet that matters, not just one nutrient. That's why I recommend eating seafood and other sources of omega-3s as part of a Mediterranean eating pattern, rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant-based fats, and herbs and spices—all sources of antioxidants.
Consuming omega-3s in this diet is likely to be far more protective than eating them within a traditional American diet, which is generally low in plant foods and too high in processed grains, sugar, and animal products.
So until we know more about the possible omega-3-diabetes link, focus on these eight key healthy eating strategies, to maximize your antioxidant intake and create balance in your diet.
Keep eating omega-3 rich seafood
But cook it in healthy ways (click here for my tips). And be mindful of your overall eating pattern.
Include veggies in as many meals as possible
Especially meals that contain animal-based foods. Whip greens into a smoothie, or add them to omelets for breakfast. Opt for salads over sandwiches at lunch. At dinner, aim to fill half of your plate with veggies, whether they're oven roasted, sautéed, stir-fried, or in a salad.
Eat fruit at breakfast and as a daily snack
If you get tired of fruit-based snacks, munch on veggies paired with hummus, tahini, olive tapenade, or guacamole. More smart options: nuts, seeds, and olives.
Use plenty of antioxidant-rich natural seasonings
Add fresh grated ginger, cinnamon, or mint to a smoothie or yogurt parfait at breakfast. Add turmeric and black pepper to eggs. Sprinkle fresh herbs, like basil, on salads. Cook with garlic, as well as fresh or dried herbs and spices, including oregano, rosemary, cloves, and cumin.
RELATED: 22 Mediterranean Diet Recipes
Have pulses in place of meat
Or at least go half and half. You could also use pulses (beans, lentils, and peas, like chickpeas) in place of grains. For example, you could serve seafood over lentils instead of rice.
Add plant-based fats to every meal
They're anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants. Think avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters. You could spread whole grain toast with ripe avocado or almond butter instead of butter, for example. Dress salads with olive oil-based vinaigrette in place of creamy dressing. Use EVOO rather than butter to sauté veggies. And top cooked fish, meat, or eggs with sliced avocado or chopped nuts.
Minimize or nix highly processed foods
Cut back on animal products that aren’t produced with natural or organic methods
These products have healthier fat profiles and lack hormones and antibiotics, making them much better options for your well-being. To learn more, check out my post on the nutritional differences between grass-fed and conventional beef.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.