What You Need to Know About Omega-3s
Why They’re a Good Fat
Not all fats are unhealthy. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the “good” types of fat. They may help lower the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis. Your body can’t make them. You have to eat them or take supplements.
Know the 3 Types of Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids come in more than one form. The types found in fish, called DHA and EPA, seem to have the strongest health benefits. Another form known as ALA is found in vegetable oils, flaxseed, walnuts, and dark leafy vegetables such as spinach. The body can change a small amount of ALA into EPA and DHA, but not very well.
How Omega-3s Fight Disease
Omega-3 fatty acids help your heart in several ways. They curb inflammation in the blood vessels (and the rest of your body). At high doses they also make abnormal heart rhythms less likely and lower your level of blood fats called triglycerides. Finally, they can slow plaque buildup inside the blood vessels.
Helping Your Heart’s Rhythm
Omega-3s seem to have a stabilizing effect on the heart. They can lower heart rate and help prevent arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). Several common sources of omega-3s are fish, walnuts, broccoli, and edamame (green soybeans that are often steamed and served in the pod).
Lowering High Blood Pressure
Omega-3s can help lower blood pressure, a bit. One plan is to replace red meat with fish during some meals. Avoid salty fish, such as smoked salmon. If you have high blood pressure, limiting salt is probably one of the things your doctor has recommended.
Do They Help Prevent Stroke?
Omega-3 foods and supplements curb plaque buildup inside blood vessels, helping with blood flow. So they may help prevent stroke caused by clots or a blocked artery. But at high doses, omega-3 supplements might make bleeding-related stroke more likely; so check with your doctor.
Useful for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Studies suggest omega-3s can curb joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis. A diet high in omega-3s may also boost the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs.
Depression and Brain Benefits?
Depression is rarer in countries where people eat a lot of omega-3s in their typical diet. But omega-3s aren’t a treatment for depression. If you’re depressed, talk with your doctor about what might help you feel better.
Research on Dementia
The jury is still out, but there’s some evidence that omega-3s may help protect against dementia and age-related mental decline. In one study, older people with a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. More research is needed to confirm the link.
Catch of the Day
The best source of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA is fish. Some varieties deliver a higher dose than others. Top choices are salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, anchovies, and tuna. It’s recommended to eat at least two servings of fish a week.
If you don’t like fish, you can get omega-3 from supplements. One gram per day is recommended for people with heart disease, but ask your doctor before starting. High doses can interfere with some medicines or increase risk of bleeding. You may notice a fishy taste and fish burps with some supplements. Read the label to find the amounts of EPA, DHA, or ALA you want
Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3s
If you don’t eat fish or fish oil, you can get a dose of DHA from algae supplements. Algae that is commercially grown is generally considered safe, though blue-green algae in the wild can contain toxins. Vegetarians also can get the ALA version of omega-3 from foods such as canola oil, flaxseed, walnuts, broccoli, and spinach — or products fortified with omega-3s.
Avoid the Omega-3 Hype
Many food products now boast that they have added omega-3 to support various aspects of your health. But be aware that the amount of omega-3 they contain may be minimal. They may contain the ALA form of omega-3, which hasn’t yet shown the same health benefits as EPA and DHA. For a measured dose of omega-3, taking fish oil supplements may be more reliable.