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The Power of Omega-3s: Incorporating Healthy Fats into Your Diet

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The Power of Omega-3s: Incorporating Healthy Fats into Your Diet

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that you must acquire from your diet. Your body needs these fats to support the structure of cell membranes, ensure proper cell functioning, regulate inflammation, balance blood clotting, and help blood vessels constrict and relax.

Therefore, omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in cardiovascular health and proper brain and nervous system functioning. Research shows that these fats reduce chronic inflammation and the risk of inflammation-related chronic diseases like neuroinflammation, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

This article will explore the important roles of omega-3 fatty acids in the body and why they are needed for optimal health. You will learn practical tips for incorporating these fats into your diet and how to balance omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

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What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Your body needs fat to function properly. Fats come in various forms that are classified based on their structure. Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond in their structure, making them liquid at room temperature. These are further divided into monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are one important type of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) that have a double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain. Three major omega-3 fatty acids are important for human health. These include plant-derived alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that derive from microalgae that fish consume. Therefore, EPA and DHA are commonly found in seafood, fatty fish, and fish oils. 

Omega-3s are known as essential fats since they cannot be produced in adequate amounts by the body and therefore must be consumed in the diet. While some ALA is converted in the body to EPA and then to DHA, this process can be inefficient. The most effective way for most people to increase the levels of these omega-3 fatty acids in the body is to consume EPA and DHA from food sources and/or supplements. 

Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have many favorable impacts on health. These fats contribute to the structure of cell membranes throughout the body and impact cell signaling and genetic function by influencing receptors in these cell membranes. In addition, omega-3 fats provide a substrate for making hormones and other regulating molecules that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation

Due to these impacts, omega-3 fatty acids support heart and brain health and help prevent many diseases related to chronic inflammation. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent heart disease, reduce the risk of stroke, help control inflammation in autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and rheumatoid arthritis, heal inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, improve eye health, reduce fat buildup in the liver, and protect against various cancers

EPA and DHA have been shown to help reduce major risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Fish oil, which supplies EPA and DHA, helps lower triglyceride fats in the blood and decreases the development of plaque and blood clots that can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes. In this way, fish oil reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) in people after they have had a heart attack. 

Omega-3 fats also play an important role in brain health. DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain and therefore crucial for healthy brain development. Adequate intake is especially important from fetal development into the second year of life while accumulation in the brain is most prominent. The essential role of omega-3s in cell membranes in the brain and nervous system also makes these fats important for brain health and cognition later in life. Omega-3-rich diets are associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia and can also benefit mental health and reduce the risk of mood disorders

Omega-3 fatty acids’ anti-inflammatory properties make them helpful in reducing inflammation and related diseases. Studies show that omega-3s can be valuable in the management of autoimmune diseases. For example, these fats reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and decrease the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids that are typically used to control inflammation. 

Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The richest source of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, anchovies, sardines, and fish oils obtained from these sources. In some cases, farmed fish have higher levels of EPA and DHA than wild-caught fish, but the levels of fats in these fish depend on the food they are fed. 

The recommended intake of omega-3 fats varies based on several individual factors, but it is generally recommended that most adults consume 250 to 500 milligrams per day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that most adults eat 8 or more ounces of seafood per week. 

ALA is found in plant oils like soybean and flax oil, nuts like walnuts, chia, and flax seeds, and leafy vegetables like purslane. Some animal meats contain some ALA when they are primarily grass-fed.

Other dietary sources of omega-3s are fortified foods. Certain brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, soy beverages, and infant formulas are fortified with DHA and other omega-3s.

Those who struggle to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from diet alone or who have increased requirements for various reasons may opt to supplement their diet with omega-3 supplements. These are available in various formulations such as fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and vegetarian options that contain algae oil. 

The balance of fats, other nutrients, and bioavailability can vary significantly between brands and supplements. For example, cod liver oil supplements provide vitamin A and vitamin D in addition to omega-3s. Supplements may offer the additional benefit of being purified to remove the toxic heavy metal methyl mercury that is sometimes found in fatty fish due to contamination of waterways and the food chain. 

Incorporating Omega-3s into Your Diet

Depending on your unique needs, there are many simple and effective ways to incorporate omega-3s into your diet. Consuming a variety of sources of plant-based ALAs complemented by eating fatty fish for those who eat animal foods can help you get a balance of omega-3 fats without accumulating heavy metals that can be found in some fish. 

Flax and hemp seeds are a great plant source of omega-3 fats. You can grind whole seeds in a coffee or spice grinder to increase bioavailability. Sprinkle ground seeds atop yogurt, cereal, vegetables, or salads, or add into smoothies for added nutrition, thickness, and flavor. Ground flax seeds can also make a good vegan egg replacement when mixed with water. Omega fats from seeds can also be consumed in the form of seed milk or oil. Store your seeds in the refrigerator for optimal freshness. 

Chia seeds are another versatile source of healthy fats. You can make a chia gel by soaking chia seeds in liquid, such as water, juice, milk, or plant-based milk, and allowing them to sit. Consume this gel as a hydrating, omega-3-rich sports gel or make a pudding. Chia gel can also serve as a vegan egg replacement.

Walnuts are another rich source of ALA. Snacking on one ounce (about 14 shelled walnut halves) of these nuts or sprinkling them onto salads or cooked whole grains meets the dietary recommendations for ALA.

Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fats are another type of PUFA that contribute to the structure of your cell membranes and moderate the production of hormones and cytokines. While you need both types of fats, the balance between these two types of omega fats is important. 

Since omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, the typical Western diet, with an abundance of processed seed oils, is often rich in these fats compared to omega-3s. This imbalance can contribute to chronic low-grade inflammation and predisposes you to a more allergic and pro-thrombotic (blood clot-forming) state.

You can help to reduce inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune reactions by reducing the omega-6-to-3 ratio in your diet. A 4:1 ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids or less in the diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer. This can be accomplished by decreasing your intake of refined omega-6 seed oils like safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and soybean oil while increasing your intake of marine omega-3s through diet and/or supplementation. 

Considerations and Recommendations

There are some important considerations to ensure that you receive the maximum health benefits from omega-3 consumption. Overall, the FDA recommends keeping daily intake of omega-3 fats below 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, with no more than 2 g/day deriving from supplements. Work with a knowledgeable professional to tailor dietary and supplementation recommendations to your unique needs and health concerns. 

Some people experience digestive distress like gas, bloating, belching, and diarrhea when taking fish oil supplements. These side effects can be reduced by spreading out the dose or using time-release preparations.

To avoid contamination with heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium, opt for supplements from companies that test and certify that their products are free of heavy metals. When consuming fatty fish, incorporate fish that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in the toxic metal methyl mercury such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, Pacific oysters, and trout.

Since omega-3s impact blood clotting, those with a bleeding disorder, who bruise easily, or who take blood-thinning medications like warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin, should be cautious. High doses of omega-3 supplementation can increase the risk of bleeding, especially in those with other risk factors. 

Other health conditions that may require special consideration when incorporating omega-3 fats are diabetes and schizophrenia. People with these conditions may lack the ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA so they may need to be sure to consume adequate EPA and DHA from their diets. It is also important that people with diabetes monitor blood sugar levels when taking fish oil supplements since they can increase blood glucose levels.  

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Key Takeaways

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential fats that help your cell membranes, hormones, heart, brain, and immune system function properly. Research shows that these healthy fats have anti-inflammatory properties that help to prevent heart and autoimmune diseases, support brain function, and balance triglycerides and blood pressure.

You can eat a healthy amount of these crucial fats in the form of DHA and EPA by incorporating seafood and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, anchovies, and sardines and fish oils obtained from these fish. The omega-3 fat ALA can be consumed by eating flax, hemp, and chia seeds, walnuts, and algae oil. Incorporating these foods into your daily diet can help reduce your risk of many chronic diseases and help your body function optimally.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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