How can you maximize your intake of brain-healthy omega-3s from food alone, without supplements? I’ve designed this fun quiz to test your knowledge of natural sources of omega-3s, so that you can arm yourself with fatty facts you need to face the world. (To learn about supplements, please see my companion quiz about omega-3 supplements right here.)
Our ancestors evolved in an environment in which whole animal and plant foods were all they had to eat. Wild, whole foods naturally provided them with a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which kept their cells functioning properly and kept their pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory forces evenly balanced as well. It has been estimated that our modern "Western" diet contains 20 to 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, tilting our systems dangerously too far towards inflammation and away from healing. Restoring a healthy ratio between these two essential fats is critical to the health of our brains and bodies.
How much do you already know about the quality of fats in your diet? Let's find out!
1. Why does the brain need omega-3 fatty acids? (select all that apply)
a) Omega-3s keep brain cell membranes flexible so they can communicate with each other properly
b) Omega-3s help protect brain cells from inflammation
c) Omega-3s lower cholesterol levels in the brain, reducing your risk for stroke
d) Omega-3s are sleek and shiny, improving your ability to attract a mate
a) True. Omega-3 fatty acids give membranes fluidity and elasticity, allowing brain cells to easily pass neurotransmitters, salts, hormones, and proteins back and forth.The human brain is approximately 2/3 fat, and about 20% of that fat is of the omega-3 variety. These fats are CRITICAL to brain health
b) True. Cells can turn omega-3 fatty acids into powerful anti-inflammatory molecules, allowing the brain to heal from trauma, infection, and oxidation (metabolic damage).
c) False. Omega-3s do not lower brain cholesterol, and we wouldn't want them to. Cholesterol levels in the brain are SUPPOSED to be high. Cholesterol can't cross the blood-brain barrier, but is so important to healthy brain function that the brain goes out of its way to make it itself.
d) False. Unless the object of your affection has x-ray vision, omega-3s do not possess the power to turn your brain into eye candy. However, a dab of fish oil behind each ear can be fun when shopping for kittens.
2. Which of these foods are naturally rich in the form of omega-3 that is best for your brain? (select all that apply)
a) Fatty fish
d) Pastured eggs
f) Chia seeds
g) Grass-fed organ meats
h) Organ-fed grass seeds
ANSWER: (a & g) Only animal foods contain EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, eggs are very low in EPA and DHA. Eggs that are marketed as being higher in omega-3 are actually higher in ALA, a form of omega-3 that is very difficult for our bodies to use.
3. Which living creatures are capable of making their own EPA and DHA completely from scratch? (select all that apply)
b) Wild salmon
e) Grass-fed cows
g) Tom Brady
ANSWER: (a, c & f) Unfortunately, humans, even Tom Brady, are unable to digest and absorb the natural omega-3s found in grass, seaweed and algae. Therefore, all of us (with the possible exception of Aaron Rodgers--Go Pack Go!) must either eat animals which feed on one of these original sources, or we must take a supplement.
4. Which plant foods are naturally rich in brain-healthy omega-3s? (select one)
b) Chia seeds
c) Flax seeds
e) Hemp seeds
f) Cannabis leaves
g) None of the above
ANSWER: (g) Plant foods contain no EPA or DHA, the active forms of omega-3 our brains require. The only omega-3 found in plant foods is ALA, which is very difficult for our bodies to transform into EPA and DHA. Most studies estimate that less than 10% of ALA (and in some cases as little as 0%) is converted into EPA and DHA in our bodies.
5. Which of the following fat sources increase your requirement for omega-3s by working against them? (select all that apply)
a) Soybean, corn, and safflower oil
c) Butter, bacon fat, and lard
e) Margarine and Crisco
f) Motor oil
ANSWER: (a, b, d, & e) Seeds, nuts and their oils ("vegetable oil") are generally very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which compete with omega-3 fatty acids inside your body. The more omega-6 you eat, the more omega-3 you must eat to keep these two types of essential fats in balance. In fact, I believe it is possible that the recommended "dosages" of omega-3s may be inflated due to the fact that studies are conducted on people who are likely consuming a great deal of omega-6 in their usual diet.
6. Which sea creatures are highest in omega-3s? (select one)
a) Salmon, mackerel, and herring
b) Scallops, shrimp and lobster
c) Cod, haddock, and tilapia
d) Scuba divers, mermaids, and krakens
ANSWER: (a) While all sea creatures contain at least some EPA and DHA, shellfish and lean white fish are lower in omega-3 fatty acids, because they are lower in fat in general. A 6 oz portion of wild salmon contains nearly 900 mg of EPA and over 1100 mg of DHA.
7. How do wild fish compare with farmed fish when it comes to omega-3s? (select one)
a) Farmed fish and wild fish have about the same amount of omega-3
b) Wild fish have a lot more omega-3
c) Farmed fish have a lot more omega-3
d) Wild fish have a lot more fun
ANSWER: (a) Farmed fish generally have about the same amount of omega-3s, although it does depend on what they are fed. One problem with farmed fish is that it is often higher in omega-6s as well, and omega-6s work against omega-3s in the body.
8. Which land animal food is the richest source of omega-3s for people who don’t eat seafood? (select one)
a) Grass-fed cow’s milk
b) Pastured beef liver
c) Pastured hens’ eggs
d) Fatty cuts of pasture-raised red meat
e) Eye of free-range newt
ANSWER: (b) Liver tops the list with about 150 mg of EPA per 3.5 ounce serving. This still can’t compete with most seafood, but there you have it.
9. Does grass-fed meat contain significantly more EPA/DHA than grain-fed meat? (select all that apply)
a) Yes, grass-fed meats have a lot more omega-3
b) No, grain-fed meats and grass-fed meats have about the same amount of omega-3
c) No, grain-fed meats have a lot more omega-3
d) No, but grass-fed meats have a lot more prestige
ANSWER: (b & d) Surprisingly, grass-fed meats do not contain significantly more EPA or DHA per pound than grain-fed meats, although grain-fed meats tend to be higher in omega-6. Grass-fed meats do contain a higher percentage of omega-3s in their fat, however, they tend to be leaner, and therefore contain less fat in general, making it a wash.
10. Which group of people tends to have the highest levels of EPA and DHA in their bodies? (select one)
ANSWER: (b) In a 2005 study, compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians were 28% lower in EPA and 31% lower in DHA. Vegans were 53% lower in EPA and 59% lower in DHA compared to omnivores. [Rosell MS et al 2005. Am J Clin Nutr 82(2).] Fruititarians were not included in this study, but since fruits contain no EPA or DHA, we can expect them to have fared poorly had they been invited to participate.
SCORE: So, what's your omega-3 IQ?
Multiply the number of your correct answers by 3 to get your score.
If you don't care to eat much in the way of wild animal fats, try my companion quiz about which omega-3 supplement is right for you.
Still not enough information? See my complete article about FATS, which includes my specific supplement product recommendations.
I'm happy to answer additional questions below in the comments section, too!