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Food Science for Your Heart

Which functional foods are worth your money?

Omega-3s

What are they? Omega-3s are a kind of fat found in fish like salmon, tuna, cod, sardines, anchovies, herring, and trout. They're also found, in lower amounts, in nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, and flax.

How do they help your heart? Eating enough omega-3s helps protect your arteries from the sticky plaque that can cause a heart attack or stroke.  Omega-3s also protect against a dangerous abnormal heartbeat, and they can lower unhealthy blood fats called triglycerides.

The best heart benefits, though, come from two kinds of omega-3s found mostly in fish: DHA and EPA. Plant foods have a different type of omega-3 called ALA.

Unfortunately, most foods you see in the store with added omega-3s -- cereal, pasta, soy milk, yogurt, margarine, and eggs -- use ALA, which may not help your heart as much as the kind found in fish. Also, many of these foods don't contain enough omega-3s, says Gerbstadt.

How much omega-3 do you need? The American Heart Association advises people to eat fish at least two times a week to get enough omega-3s.  There are 2 grams in a 4-ounce serving of salmon. If you have a heart condition, ask your doctor if you need higher amounts of omega-3s.

Before you head to the store to buy functional foods, keep this in mind: Most of the nutrients you need should come from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, fish, and lean meat. No one knows whether fortified foods can provide all the health benefits you get from the complex mix of nutrients in whole foods. However, if you think you could use a nutritional boost, ask your doctor which functional foods might be right for you.

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Reviewed on December 24, 2012

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