How would you react if someone told you to eat more fats? If this thought perks you up, you’re in luck…sort of. You still need to steer clear of saturated fats. However, omega-3 fatty acids, which are unsaturated fats, have been shown to provide many health benefits and are an important part of a healthy diet.
According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of potentially fatal heart arrhythmias. They reduce triglyceride levels and slightly lower blood pressure. Furthermore, omega-3s slow down the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque. Atherosclerosis can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other heart and artery diseases; slowing down plaque development helps allow oxygen-rich blood to continue moving throughout your body.
A June 3, 2011, Reuters Health article reported two new studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found a possible link between omega-3 fatty acids and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. While results were not conclusive proof that this link exists, ingestion of food-based omega-3s did show promise against preventing type 2 diabetes.
The researchers cautioned that the fats themselves might not be responsible for the lower risk but that they may be indicators of other beneficial dietary or lifestyle habits that influence diabetes risk. Their advice is to eat a lot of healthy “whole” foods like fiber-rich grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, vegetable oils and fish. Following this type of diet will ensure that you are getting all of your necessary nutrients, including omega-3s.
Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish as well as in certain plant foods like flaxseed, canola oil and soy. Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna. The American Heart Association recommends two or more servings per week (3.5 ounces cooked) of fish, with a preference toward fatty fish.
Of course, some fish are also high in mercury content and other contaminants, which can be concerning. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish should be avoided because of their high mercury levels. The American Heart Association published a chart outlining mercury levels and omega-3 fatty acid content in commonly found fish and seafood.
As with all nutrients, ingestion through food intake is preferable. However, omega-3 fatty acid supplements are available and may be necessary if you have coronary artery disease or high triglycerides; your health care professional can advise you about the appropriate dose. Be cautious of letting too many omega-3 fatty acids into your system, though; intake of more than 3g/day can thin the blood and potentially increase risk of stroke. The immune system may also be compromised with too high a dose of omega-3s.
There is no magical pill that can help solve all of our health problems. But eating a well-balanced variety of foods prepared healthily and rich in nutrients can help ensure we get all the nutrients we need.
Reviewed June 7, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton