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Food & Dining

Get DHA from fish instead of supplements

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:28 PM

Q: I'm doing my best to avoid Alzheimer's. I eat a balanced diet, exercise and do all the right stuff I know of so far. Then I noticed that the formula my little grandson is getting says it has DHA added to help his brain development. And I've been seeing ads for DHA and fish oil for seniors, too. Should I add those supplements to my stash? Will DHA help me keep my brain?

A: That is certainly an interesting question, and you're not the first to consider it. But at this point in time, you're better off trying to add more fish to your meals.

Studies of large populations have found that people who eat fish, especially the cold water fish most likely to have high amounts of DHA, do tend to get less Alzheimer's, or to get it later in life. And as we Americans tend to prefer a pill to a change in menu, there have been various studies that tried to test whether supplements of fish oil or DHA would help. But Alzheimer's takes so long to develop, and there's no way to predict who will get it. So most of them have used people who already are showing the first signs of mental decline. And the results are disappointing.

So far, it does not look as though fish oil or DHA supplements are any help, at least once the first signs of the illness have appeared. But that may be partly because none of the studies had enough people or lasted long enough to tell for sure. Or, as we've found out with so many other supplements that looked promising, what works as a food does not work when we isolate one or two of the ingredients. Maybe it's something else in fish instead of DHA that's protecting the brain. Or maybe we need three or four ingredients together. Or maybe we just can't absorb the DHA in the right form from a pill.

Someday we might find out. In the meantime, have some more salmon!

Q: Which is better for you, tea brewed from tea bags or loose tea in a tea ball? The bags are so much more convenient, but I've read that only the worst tea bits end up in bags. Are there still any antioxidants in tea from bags?

A: The amount of antioxidants you get from loose tea is slightly higher than what is in tea from tea bags, but the variety of tea, how much you use and how long you allow it to steep make a bigger difference.

Taking the tea leaves out of the bag will allow more antioxidants into the tea than the same tea brewed in the bag. To get the full complement of antioxidants from tea bags, you need to allow it to steep for 10 minutes, compared to just 2 minutes for loose tea. Of course that affects the overall strength of the tea, too.

As for flavor, color and mouth feel, they also depend much more on the variety of tea and the brewing method than they do on whether it came from a bag or a ball.

There are great teas in tea bags and poor quality teas available as loose tea. Professional tea tasters say the size of the leaf or the bits (fine tea dust is called "fannings") doesn't make a difference in the flavor.

As for the health benefits of tea's antioxidants, the evidence is still pretty mixed. More studies agree the flavonoids from either green or black tea do help maintain heart health. Other health issues such as cancer, weight or tooth loss have less evidence, and the studies often use extremely large amounts of tea or tea extracts. If you enjoy tea, it won't hurt, but don't expect it to replace your medications.


Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at mkeith@ufl.edu.

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