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What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

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Broiled Salmon With Lemon Sauce

Salmon is Chock-Full of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fiona Haynes

Good and Bad Fats:

Limiting our intake of fat is prudent, especially saturated fats and trans fats, which raise cholesterol, putting us at greater risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. But some fat is needed for the proper absorption of certain vitamins, and for optimal health. What we ought to be doing is limiting our overall intake of fat to around 30 percent of calories, and within that limit, choosing good fats—the unsaturated fats comprising monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats actually help counter the harmful effects of saturated fats and trans fats.

So What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?:

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found naturally in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to protect against heart disease, inflammation, certain types of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and macular degeneration (a leading cause of vision loss). Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for proper brain development and neurological function in developing babies, too.

Are They Essential?:

Omega-3 fatty acids are often classed as "essential fatty acids," meaning that they are necessary for our health and that our bodies are unable to produce them. In fact, the body is unable to manufacture one kind of omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha linolenic acid (LNA or ALA), but it can make the other types, eicosapentaeonic acid (EPA) and docoshexaeonic acid (DHA), by converting LNA, though only a small percentage of LNA is able to be converted. That’s why it’s important for us to include foods containing omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, even if we’re trying to eat low fat.

Where Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Found?:

LNA is found in plants, nuts and seeds, and most of us get sufficient amounts of LNA in our diet. But most LNA is burned for energy rather than utilized by the body—about 5 percent is converted to either DHA or EPA. EPA and DHA are the most potent forms of omega 3s, offering the greatest potential health benefits. These two omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, especially cold-water fish such as salmon.

Fortified Foods and a Caveat:

Certain foods are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, including eggs, bread, yogurt and pasta. These fortified foods tend to contain the less potent LNA, so are not as helpful to the body as food sources containing EPA and DHA.

The FDA allows products to carry a qualified health claim for EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids reducing risk of heart disease. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest complained to the FDA about the use of the claim on eggs, arguing that consumers might believe that eating eggs, which are fortified with LNA, could reduce their risk of heart disease. The CSPI also notes that the claim isn’t meant to be used on foods that are high in saturated fat or cholesterol (eggs are high in cholesterol).

Best Foods for Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Sources of EPA and DHA:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and tuna; seaweed and algae
Sources of LNA:
  • Walnuts
  • Canola Oil
  • Hempseed Oil
  • Flaxseeds and oil
  • Soybeans/tofu
  • Grass-fed Beef

Here’s what the American Heart Association recommends regarding omega-3 fatty acids.

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