Ask Tufts Experts: Fish Oil; Flaxseed; Sweet vs. White Potatoes

Q. I take fish oil for heart health, but some of what I read in the health press says fish oil doesn’t do much. Should I stop taking it?

A. Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, answers: “Current recommendations do not support the use of fish oil supplements to prevent heart disease in otherwise healthy adults. But the recommendations do support a healthy dietary pattern that includes fish (seafood) at least twice a week. There is little evidence that taking fish oil supplements instead of eating fish is beneficial, and by doing so you will be losing out on some other benefits of including fish in your diet.

“One of those benefits comes from eating darker-fleshed fish like salmon and trout, which contain higher amounts of heart-healthy unsaturated fats than other species. However, including any type of seafood in your diet is highly recommended if it replaces major contributors of saturated fat, such as burgers or a piece of quiche.

“As with any effort to improve diet quality, also consider the way you prepare the seafood. Avoid butter and cream sauces. Instead, use spices and herbs liberally and serve the seafood with lots of colorful vegetables, either included in the preparation of the seafood or separately.”

Q. Does ground flaxseed have more health benefits than whole flaxseed?

A. Tianmeng (Tammy) Zhou, Dietetic Intern, Tufts Medical Center, explains: “Flaxseed has several components that are beneficial for human health. First, it contains a relatively large amount of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, which is recognized as essential for human health. Second, flaxseed is rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Third, it has the highest content of lignans of all plant foods used for human consumption. (Lignans are plant chemicals that some have suggested may have anti-carcinogenic and anti-viral properties.) Flaxseed is also a good source of magnesium and several B vitamins.

“The main difference between whole and ground flax seeds is digestibility. When whole seeds are consumed, they may pass through your intestine undigested because the outer shell of a flaxseed contains insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water. Studies have shown that crushing and milling flaxseed make it more likely the components will be available to be absorbed. Thus, flaxseed should be cracked or ground in order to obtain its full nutritional value and health benefits. However, ground flaxseed loses its freshness more quickly than whole seeds, so it’s best to refrigerate whole flaxseeds and then crush or grind them in a coffee grinder as needed.”

Q. I’ve often heard that sweet potatoes are healthier than white potatoes. Is that true?

A. Kelly Kane, MS, RD, director of nutrition and business operations at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center, responds: “Sweet potatoes have some potential nutritional advantages over ordinary white potatoes. They are much higher in beta-carotene, for example. Sweet potatoes also tend to be higher in fiber than white potatoes, especially if you eat the skin. So sweet potatoes are a great alternative to white potatoes and are a healthier choice.

“Potatoes tend to raise blood sugar more quickly than non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower. For that reason, sweet potatoes should serve as a starch in meals, replacing foods such as rice or pasta. That can be a confusing message for some people because potatoes are a vegetable (which Americans don’t eat enough of), but it should be perceived as the starch in your meal because the body will metabolize it like a starchy grain.”

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