Understanding Omega-3 Fats
Are you getting your omega-3s? Find out why they may benefit your health and how to increase them in your diet.

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Understanding Omega-3 Fats

If you are looking for a healthier diet, you don't need to look far to find omega-3 fats on the list. Fatty fish are often listed as super foods because they contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are believed to have positive effects on certain health conditions such as heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. But in fact, study results actually have been mixed. Understanding this essential fatty acid can help you separate its proven facts from myths.

The "good fat" and how to find it
There's no arguing the fact that our bodies need omega-3 and most of us don't get enough of it. Named after its mix of three essential fatty acids, omega-3 is a polyunsaturated or good fat. Our bodies don't produce omega-3 fatty acids. They must be obtained through the foods we eat. Foods rich in these fats include oily fish such as salmon or trout, flax oil and seeds, some green leafy vegetables and walnuts.

Three fatty acids that make omega-3
EPA and DHA are found primarily in cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel and tuna. We get ALA in our diet from vegetarian sources. It can be found in canola oil, flaxseeds and flax oil, some green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, and walnuts. ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA in the body in small amounts.

Essential to health
Omega-3 is essential for a number of bodily functions. These include muscle activity, blood clotting, digestion, fertility and cell division and growth. Additional benefits of omega-3 fats have been studied as ways to:

  • Prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression
  • Protect against Alzheimer's disease
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer
  • Ease arthritis, joint pain and inflammatory skin conditions
  • Protect the brain and eyes against disease
  • Support a healthy pregnancy

Some results are promising, but more research is needed to prove the results of a positive effect.

Heart health

  • For healthy adults, a diet rich in omega-3s may help reduce the risk of some heart disease. It has shown that it may reduce cardiac deaths for people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease and without. For those at high risk of or who have heart disease, omega-3 has been shown in some studies to decrease the risk of arrhythmias. These are abnormal heartbeats.
  • Omega-3 decreases triglyceride levels. It also slows the growth rate of plaque in arteries.
  • It may help lower blood pressure slightly.
  • Omega-3 supplements have not been shown to protect against heart disease as fish has.

Fetal and infant brain development
Omega-3s are critical for the development of our brains, vision and nervous systems.

  • Increased omega-3s from fish are encouraged for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
  • Some infant formulas are now supplemented with DHA.
  • Pregnant women and young children are advised not to eat certain fish. These fish include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. These fish may contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants. Fish that usually contain less mercury can be safely eaten twice a week. Those fish include light tuna and salmon. White tuna should be limited to 6 ounces per week.

Rheumatoid arthritis
Some studies have shown that omega-3 fats may help relieve joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Enrich your diet with omega-3
Experts generally agree that increasing omega-3 is critical for good health. Try these strategies:

  • Replace corn, safflower, peanut and sunflower oils with canola and olive oils.
  • Increase ALA by eating walnuts, flaxseeds and flax oil.
  • Eat smaller amounts of grain-fed meat and high-fat dairy and replace them twice a week with fatty fish.
  • Eat fatty fish at least twice a week. These include salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines and tuna. The risk of getting too much mercury or other contaminants from fish is generally outweighed by the health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids provide. Besides an increase in omega-3s, some of the benefits of fish may result from people eating it in place of less healthy foods.
By Mary Small, Contributing Writer
Created on 05/09/2011
Updated on 06/13/2013
  • United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. Fats.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nutrition for everyone. Polyunsaturated fats.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Omega-3 supplements: An introduction.
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