Good Fat, Bad Fat: The Facts About Omega-3
Think all dietary fat is the same? Guess again
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
If you ask folks what food group they should avoid, most will probably answer "fats." While it's true that, in large amounts, some types of fat are bad for your health (not to mention your waistline), there are some we simply can't live without.
Among them are the omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods including walnuts, some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies.
"It not only plays a vital role in the health of the membrane of every cell in our body, it also helps protect us from a number of key health threats," says Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
The jury is in: Omega-3 fatty acids have amazing health properties, affecting everything from your joints to your heart. And all you need to do is to enjoy a few servings a week of omega-3-rich fish, nuts, seeds, and oils.
Foods rich in omega-3s are also excellent sources of lean protein -- which helps keep you feeling satisfied, making you less likely to overeat. So go ahead, treat yourself to your favorite seafood dish (or try one of the flaxseed recipes in this article).
The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention deficient disorder (ADD), joint pain and other rheumatoid problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer's disease.
Just how do omega-3s perform so many health "miracles" in people? One way, experts say, is by encouraging the production of body chemicals that help control inflammation -- in the joints, the bloodstream, and the tissues.
But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yet another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.
"When blood is too 'sticky,' it promotes clot formation, and this can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke," says nutritionist Lona Sandon, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But once you add omega-3s to the mix, the risk of heart problems goes down, she tells WebMD.
The latest research shows that the most promising health effects of essential fatty acids are achieved through a proper balance between omega-3s and omega-6s. The ratio to shoot for, experts say, is roughly 4 parts omega-3s to 1 part omega-6s.
Most of us, they say, come up dangerously short.
"The typical American diet has a ratio of around 20 to 1 -- 20 omega-6's to 1 omega-3 -- and that spells trouble," says Sandon, an assistant professor of nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. While reducing your intake of omega-6s can help, getting more omega-3s from food is an even better way to go.
How to Get What You Need
Omega-3 fatty acids are not one single nutrient, but a collection of several, including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Both are found in greatest abundance in coldwater fish -- and that, say experts, is one reason so many of us are deficient.
Over the past several years, the Food and Drug Administration and other groups have issued warnings about mercury and other harmful chemicals found in fish. This has led many people to stop eating fish -- a big mistake, Tansman says.
"People have taken the whole FDA advisory out of context including who it's for, which is primarily pregnant women, and small children," she says. Moreover, Tansman says, even if you obey the FDA warnings in the strictest sense, the latest advisory says that up to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week is safe for everyone. That amount, Tansman reminds us, is roughly half of what we need to get enough omega-3s.
"The recommendation [for omega-3s] is two servings of fish a week," Tansman says. "At 3 to 4 ounces per serving, that's well below the FDA's safe limit of 12 ounces per week."
According to the American Heart Association, those looking to protect their hearts should eat a variety of types of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) at least twice a week. Those with heart disease should get 1 gram of omega-3s (containing both EPA and DHA) per day, preferably from fatty fish. About 1.5 ounces of fish contains 1 gram of omega-3s.
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