All fats are not created equal: Some are good (unsaturated), some are bad (saturated), and some are really terrible (trans fats). Among the good fats are omega-3 fatty acids, which offer a number of health benefits, including helping to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s are called essential fatty acids because they must be obtained through food and/or supplements (the body can’t make them on its own). There are three types of omega-3s, each essential for optimal health. Two of them, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found mainly in cold-water fish, such as herring, sardines, and salmon. EPA and DHA are extremely effective at reducing inflammation and preventing the formation of blood clots, thus reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack. The third kind, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in plant sources such as flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts, and dark leafy greens. Once ingested, ALA is converted to EPA and DHA, the types most readily used by the body. More studies are needed, however, to show a cause and effect beneficial relationship between ALA and heart disease.
Foods and Omega-3s
The best and most natural way to increase your intake of omega-3s is to eat more oily fish (at least two servings per week) and dark leafy greens, and to add some ground flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts to your diet in moderation. If you have documented heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends getting 1 gram daily of EPA and DHA, preferably from oily fish, although the association also says that an omega-3 fatty acid supplement could be considered in consultation with your physician. Dr. Arthur Agatston, preventive cardiologist and creator of the South Beach Diet, agrees with these recommendations. He also notes for people with markedly elevated triglycerides (bad blood fats), higher doses of prescription fish oils (2 to 4 grams daily) can be quite effective when used under a doctor’s care.
Word of Caution
Be advised that people with certain medical conditions, such as those taking anticoagulants, those with bleeding disorders, or those with uncontrolled hypertension, should always consult with their physician before taking fish oil supplements. Also note that certain fish, including swordfish, king mackerel, albacore tuna, and tilefish, can contain high levels of mercury. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children should avoid fish high in mercury and consult with a physician before taking any supplements.