Health Habits: Fatty Acids

What do fish, vegetable oil, soy foods, seeds, and nuts have in common?  If you answered with Omega-3 fatty acids, you are correct.  Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce risk of heart disease and other related conditions, including death.  As you may have noticed from the previous listed foods, omega-3 can be found in foods other than fish.  There are 3 types of Omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  Seafood such as salmon, tuna, crab, and mussels have EPA and DHA.  ALA is found in other foods such as vegetable oil and soy. 

Evidence from studies suggest that seafood sources of omega-3 should be included in a heart-healthy diet.  Inflammation in the body can damage blood vessels, leading to heart disease and stroke.  Eating rich sources of Omega-3s may help decrease inflammation.  These fatty acids may benefit the body by decreasing triglycerides, lowering blood pressure slightly, reducing blood clotting and decreasing risks of strokes and heart failure risk.  While most of the omega-3 focus tends to be on fish, it is important that we do not forget plant sources.  ALA or alpha-linolenic acid is found in plant-based foods. Flaxseed is a popular source of ALA because it is one of the richest sources and has heart-disease fighting properties.  The hull of the seed is hard to digest, so ground or milled form is ideal.  Chia seeds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds are other good sources to include in the diet.

Studies have been inconclusive regarding Omega-3 supplements.  When food is processed, nutrients tend to be lost, so whole food sources are best.  Supplements are generally used to fill in nutritional gaps.  Omega-3 fatty acids are important for fetal growth and development, so pregnant or breastfeeding women should include it in their diet. Fish such as shark, swordfish and King mackerel are high in mercury, so they should be avoided.  Women do not eat adequate amounts of fish, so prenatal vitamins with EPA/DHA are recommended to fill in for deficiency in the diet. Supplements may also benefit others such as those who do not eat fish or plant sources of Omega-3s.  Before starting any supplements, it is always recommended to speak with your physician or dietitian. 

Take a moment to review your diet and ask yourself if you are getting sources of omega-3 fatty acids daily.  If not, it may be time to consider some foods listed above.  Why is this important, you ask?  Omega-3s are essential, meaning your body cannot make them, therefore, you must eat them.  Their anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy benefits can help you live a longer and healthier life, combined with a healthy diet.  If you’re unsure about your diet, seek out a dietitian.

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