Good Fat, Bad Fat: The Facts About Omega-3
Think all dietary fat is the same? Guess again
If you ask folks what food group they should avoid, most will probably
answer "fats." While it's true that, in large amounts, some types of
fat are bad for your health (not to mention your waistline), there are some we
simply can't live without.
Among them are the omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods including walnuts,
some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as herring, mackerel,
sturgeon, and anchovies.
"It not only plays a vital role in the health of the membrane of every
cell in our body, it also helps protect us from a number of key health
threats," says Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist at Mount Sinai
Medical Center in New York.
The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and
stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain and other rheumatoid
problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that
omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of
illnesses including Alzheimer's disease.
Just how do omega-3s perform so many health "miracles" in people?
One way, experts say, is by encouraging the production of body chemicals that
help control inflammation -- in the joints, the bloodstream, and the
But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yet
another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as
eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s
are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and
help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s
aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.
"When blood is too 'sticky,' it promotes clot formation, and this can
increase the risk of heart attack and stroke," says nutritionist Lona
Sandon, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But once you
add omega-3s to the mix, the risk of heart problems goes down, she tells
The latest research shows that the most promising health effects of
essential fatty acids are achieved through a proper balance between omega-3s
and omega-6s. The ratio to shoot for, experts say, is roughly 4 parts omega-3s
to 1 part omega-6s.
Most of us, they say, come up dangerously short.
"The typical American diet has a ratio of around 20 to 1 -- 20 omega-6's
to 1 omega-3 -- and that spells trouble," says Sandon, an assistant
professor of nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in
Dallas. While reducing your intake of omega-6s can help, getting more omega-3s
from food is an even better way to go.
How to Get What You Need
Omega-3 fatty acids are not one single nutrient, but a collection of
several, including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).
Both are found in greatest abundance in coldwater fish -- and that, say
experts, is one reason so many of us are deficient.