Omega-3s: The Heart-Healthy Fats
Just a Few Servings of Fish a Week Can Make a Difference
Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women of all ages in the United States, but there is an easy way to reduce your risk. Eating just two servings of fatty fish a week can reduce your risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent.
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Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids provide essential nutrients that have been shown to help protect your heart, lower triglycerides and raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol.
Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Considered one of nature's best medicines, omega-3s are crucial for building cell membranes and reducing inflammation. And because our bodies cannot make omega-3s, we must get them from our diet.
There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids. The two omega-3s proven to provide potent heart-health benefits are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), often referred to as "long-chain" omega-3s. EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish, particularly cold-water or oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines and albacore tuna.
The third major omega-3 fatty acid is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which comes primarily from plants, such as some nuts and seeds and their oils. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA, but the process is not efficient, and the conversion rate varies among individuals.
While all three omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the body and are believed to have health benefits, EPA and DHA have been shown to protect against heart disease and provide other health benefits as well. More research is needed to understand exactly how ALA omega-3s affect heart health.
The Benefits of Omega-3s
Studies continue to show numerous benefits from eating fish containing EPA and DHA omega-3s. Some of the health benefits include the following:
- Lowers risk of heart disease. Studies consistently show that EPA and DHA decrease the risk of arrhythmias (which can lead to sudden cardiac death), lower triglyceride levels, help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries and slightly reduce blood pressure. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers analyzed 20 studies and found that eating one to two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish per week reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has suggested that 50,000 deaths from heart disease alone could be avoided through a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Reduces inflammation. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation throughout the body, thus helping to prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
- Boosts brain function. The human brain has a high concentration of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are believed to be important for memory and cognition. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for brain development, too. Studies show that infants who do not receive enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for vision and nerve problems. The World Health Organization notes an increased risk for suboptimal brain development in babies whose mothers don't eat enough seafood during pregnancy.
Ongoing studies continue to identify potential benefits of omega-3s on other conditions including some cancers, stroke, inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Omega-3 Food Sources
Most nutritionists agree that you should aim to get your nutrients, including omega-3s, from foods rather than supplements. Fish is the best food source of EPA and DHA. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings or ¾ cup flaked fish every week. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also encourage people to eat more fish and note that consumption of about 8 ounces per week of seafood can reduce risk for cardiac death.
Children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers can—and should—eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish—such as canned light tuna, shrimp, salmon, sardines, pollock, catfish, herring, mackerel and trout. Up to half (6 ounces) of this weekly seafood can be canned albacore tuna. There are just four higher-mercury fish that pregnant and nursing women and children should avoid: shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish (also known as golden bass or golden snapper). These are fish that most people rarely eat.
Plant sources of ALA omega-3s include tofu, soybeans, walnuts, flaxseeds and canola oil. The American Heart Association recommends people at risk for heart disease consume a variety of omega-3 fatty acids from marine and plant sources.
There are also food products fortified with omega-3s, such as some eggs, milk, juice, breads and cereal. Look for labels that say omega-3 "fortified," "enhanced" or "enriched." If you can't get enough omega-3s from your diet, talk to your health care professional about taking omega-3 supplements.
Tips for Eating More Seafood
It's easy to include two to three servings of seafood in your diet each week. A small drained can of tuna contains about 4 ounces, and a salmon steak or small trout may be about 3 to 6 ounces. A healthy portion will be about the size of a deck of cards.
Here are some tips to help you reach your omega-3 needs and reduce your risk for heart disease.
- Flavor fish with low-sodium and low-fat seasonings, such as herbs, lemon juice and spices.
- Use low-fat cooking techniques like grilling, broiling, roasting or baking.
- Stash easy-to-prepare seafood in your pantry or freezer, such as canned salmon, tuna and sardines or frozen shrimp, scallops or fish fillets (choose unbreaded varieties).
- Get creative with your favorite recipes by substituting fish for meat, such as salmon burgers, fish tacos or shrimp stir-fry.
- Add shellfish to your dishes. Oyster stew, linguini with clams and steamed mussels are healthful and satisfying.
- Look for money savers. Canned light tuna, sardines and salmon and bulk frozen seafood tend to be cost-effective ways to get more seafood on your table.
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