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Why Omega-3 Is an Essential Part of a Healthy Diet

These fatty acids are brain and heart healthy -- and easy to add to your diet. Try our Tuna Pocket Sandwich!
By Erin O'Donnell
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Casting around for sound nutrition advice? Catch this: Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for good health, yet the body can't make these vital fats on its own, so you need to eat omega-3-rich foods several times a week to maintain an adequate supply.

Omega-3s play a variety of roles in the body, but they're best known for supporting heart and brain health. They help the heart by preventing abnormal heart rhythms, and they also ease the inflammation that can contribute to coronary artery blockages, says Richard J. Deckelbaum, MD, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.

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Deckelbaum adds that DHA, an omega-3 in fish, eggs, and organ meats, is a necessary building block for brain development in babies before and after birth. Research also suggests that nourishing your brain with omega-3s may reduce your risk of depression and related mood disorders.

How Omega-3s Help the Heart

Omega-3s can reduce triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) and raise HDL (the "good" cholesterol) that can reduce your risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure slightly, Deckelbaum says. The two omega-3s most important to the heart are EPA and DHA, found in fish, especially fatty fish. That's why the American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of omega-3-rich fish a week. Standout sources include salmon, sardines, tuna, and herring.

Deckelbaum says it might take two to three months of frequent meals of fatty fish or other omega-rich foods for your body to achieve a healthy level of these fats (and for you to see the benefits). "You can't just eat some salmon and expect to feel better tomorrow," he says. In addition to coldwater fish, fortified eggs are another good source. Be sure to choose a brand that includes DHA, which may offer a wider range of health benefits than ALA, another omega-3 commonly added to eggs.

Walnuts and flaxseeds contain ALA, making them an important choice for vegetarians or people who don't eat fish. But Deckelbaum says the body doesn't use ALA as efficiently as DHA and EPA, so you may miss some health benefits if it's your only omega-3 source. To use flaxseeds, grind them in a blender and then sprinkle a tablespoonful on oatmeal or whir into smoothies. Store any remaining seeds in the fridge to prevent spoilage.

Omega-3s and Brain Health

Just as DHA is important for the brain development of babies, it may benefit the brain at the other end of life too. Preliminary studies suggest that increased DHA intake may help prevent age-related dementia. Tuna is a handy and inexpensive source of omega-3 fats, but choose tuna packed in water, which offers more omega-3s than versions packed in oil. (Some of the omega-3s are transferred to the oil, which most people drain off.) Other omega-3-rich fish include mackerel, halibut, anchovies, and rainbow trout. Avocadoes are also high in omega-3s.

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