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The omega-3 obsession: How does eating fish at every meal affect your body?

He was a one-man experiment in a world crazy about omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplements.
Salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Paul Greenberg makes a mean plate of spaghetti and fish balls.

The journalist spent a year eating seafood at every single meal, enjoying it grilled, broiled, fried, smoked and packed in olive oil, with the recipes becoming more “inventive” as he went along. His daily fish feast injected his diet with an abundance of fish oil — a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.

How would all that goodness affect Greenberg’s body? He was a one-man experiment in a world crazy about omega-3s, a type of healthy fat humans must get from food. Greenberg explored the obsession and its impact on the environment in his latest book, “The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet.”

With claims that omega-3s may boost heart and brain health, Americans are paying attention: Fish oil is the most popular non-vitamin dietary supplement taken by U.S. adults. Over 18 million people reported they had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous month, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

Why are omega-3s so special? Greenberg shared the answers with TODAY. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

How did eating seafood at every meal for a year affect your body?

Sadly, I didn’t really see any of the typical markers of cardiovascular health change. I didn’t see any marked change in cholesterol, either good or bad. Triglycerides — no change. Heart rate and blood pressure were all pretty much the same.

But I had around 11 percent omega-3 levels in my blood — most Americans are below 5 percent. A finding above 8 percent is desirable. Somebody said to me that I had the blood of a Sicilian fisherman circa the 1890s.

My mercury levels went up. My readings were such that an Alaskan health professional said: “If we had readings as high as yours come in from one of our citizens, we would probably send somebody out to your village and tell you to stop eating so much whale blubber.”

Once I started going back to two to three portions of seafood per week, my mercury issues disappeared.

Why do you call omega-3 the “Forrest Gump molecule”?

You know how Forrest just kind of seems to show up at these very important moments? You’re never quite sure: Is Forrest actually making the moment, or is he just there when the important moment happens?

Omega-3 is just present in a lot of things. Sperm cells and egg cells have really high levels of omega-3, so it’s there for sex. It’s really high in our brains, so it’s there for thinking. It seems to be implicated in cardiovascular disease.

Omega-3s seem to play a large part in having more supple and more active cell membranes. They also seem to help us with inflammation and with resolution from inflammation.

Something like 10 percent of the human brain is DHA omega-3 fatty acid by weight. So even if you just looked at it from raw quantity, you’d have to admit it was playing a vital role there.

Do omega-3s boost health?

I do believe having omega-3s in our diet is critical.

The jury is out on heart health. In terms of the body of evidence and just the very fact that there’s so much omega-3s as part of our brains, that leads me to believe the neurological effect may be more important. There are some people who believe omega-3s and mental health are linked.

Can you have an omega-3 deficiency?

The people who are in “omega world” believe there’s a chronic omega-3 deficiency in the American diet. It stems from the fact that we have switched over to a diet that’s largely omega-6 based — which is corn- and soy-fed beef, pork and chicken; corn and soy oil in our foods — and that we eat very little seafood and very few leafy greens.

The omega-3 people say we need to have a balance of omega-3s and omega-6s in our bodies. Their argument is that we’re so tilted against omega-3 in our regular eating patterns that we have to supplement our bodies in order come up to parity.

Is it worth taking fish oil supplements?

Rather than trying to supplement our way out of the situation, what we really need to address is our overconsumption of industrial animal products and industrial corn and soy products, and to try to boost the levels of omega-3s in our bodies through sustainable seafood.

People might want to look at getting their omega-3 blood levels tested. If they are super low, they might consider getting them up to levels their physicians recommend. My first choice would be to try and do it through diet. But if you can’t do it through diet, I suppose you could try the supplements.

Which fish are the best to eat to boost omega-3 levels?

Salmon is certainly very high in omega-3s. I always try to push people towards wild Alaskan sockeye salmon. It has very low levels of mercury and other toxins.

Beyond that, herring and anchovies are really great ways to get omega-3s into your life.

Sardines — all these little silvery fish are all really great sources of omega-3 and they also tend to be lower in mercury.

How often should we eat fish?

A pescaterian diet did very, very well for health outcomes. In the Mediterranean way of eating, you’re only supposed to have animal protein a couple or three times a week. In the pescaterian diet, you’re making a large portion of those small amounts of animal protein coming from fish.

Do you take fish oil supplements?

I do not.

One thing you have to remember is humans existed for a couple of hundred thousand years without omega-3 supplements in their lives. A lot of it is just eating real food.

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