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Good Fat, Bad Fat: The Facts About Omega-3

Think all dietary fat is the same? Guess again

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 28, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

If you ask folks what food group they should avoid, most will probablyanswer "fats." While it's true that, in large amounts, some types offat are bad for your health (not to mention your waistline), there are some wesimply 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 everycell in our body, it also helps protect us from a number of key healththreats," says Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, CDN, a nutritionist at Mount SinaiMedical Center in New York.

The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease andstroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attentiondeficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain and other rheumatoidproblems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown thatomega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array ofillnesses 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 thathelp control inflammation -- in the joints, the bloodstream, and thetissues.

But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yetanother essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such aseggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6sare also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, andhelp make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6saren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.

"When blood is too 'sticky,' it promotes clot formation, and this canincrease the risk of heart attack and stroke," says nutritionist LonaSandon, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But once youadd omega-3s to the mix, the risk of heart problems goes down, she tellsWebMD.

The latest research shows that the most promising health effects ofessential fatty acids are achieved through a proper balance between omega-3sand omega-6s. The ratio to shoot for, experts say, is roughly 4 parts omega-3sto 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'sto 1 omega-3 -- and that spells trouble," says Sandon, an assistantprofessor of nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center inDallas. While reducing your intake of omega-6s can help, getting more omega-3sfrom 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 ofseveral, including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).Both are found in greatest abundance in coldwater fish -- and that, sayexperts, is one reason so many of us are deficient.

Over the past several years, the Food and Drug Administration and othergroups have issued warnings about mercury and other harmful chemicals found infish. This has led many people to stop eating fish -- a big mistake, Tansmansays.

"People have taken the whole FDA advisory out of context including whoit's for, which is primarily pregnant women, and small children," she says.Moreover, Tansman says, even if you obey the FDA warnings in the strictestsense, the latest advisory says that up to 12 ounces of a variety of fish eachweek is safe for everyone. That amount, Tansman reminds us, is roughly half ofwhat we need to get enough omega-3s.

"The recommendation [for omega-3s] is two servings of fish a week,"Tansman says. "At 3 to 4 ounces per serving, that's well below the FDA'ssafe limit of 12 ounces per week."

According to the American Heart Association, those looking to protect theirhearts should eat a variety of types of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, andmackerel) at least twice a week. Those with heart disease should get 1 gram ofomega-3s (containing both EPA and DHA) per day, preferably from fatty fish.About 1.5 ounces of fish contains 1 gram of omega-3s.

But even if you don't like fish (or choose not to eat it), you can still getwhat you need from dietary sources. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "RecipeDoctor" Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, says one answer lies in plants rich inomega-3s -- particularly flaxseed.

"It's safe to say this is the most potent plant source of omega-3,"says Magee, author of The Flax Cookbook. While flaxseed contains no EPAor DHA, Magee says, it's a rich source of another omega-3 known asalpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can use to make EPA and DHA.

Flaxseed is available in health food stores and many supermarkets, sold aswhole seeds, ground seeds, or oil. Although flaxseed oil contains ALA, Mageesays ground flaxseed is a much better choice because it also contains 3 gramsof fiber per tablespoon, as well as healthy phytoestrogens. Other sources ofomega-3s include canola oil, broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grapeleaves, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, and walnuts.

"About an ounce -- or one handful -- of walnuts have about 2.5 grams ofomega-3s," says Sandon. "That's equal to about 3.5 ounces ofsalmon."

Besides getting more omega-3s, you can also help your heart by replacingsome omega-6s from cooking oils with a third fatty acid known as omega-9(oleonic acid). This is a monounsaturated fat found primarily in olive oil.

Though it is not considered "essential" (the body can make someomega-9), by substituting it for oils rich in omega-6s, you can help restorethe balance between omega-3s and omega-6s, plus gain some additional healthbenefits.

"Factors found in olive oil can also help boost the good cholesterol,which can also help your heart," says Magee.

Supplements vs. Foods

If you're thinking that maybe the easiest and most low-cal way to getomega-3s is with fish oil capsules, not so fast. Many nutritionists say it's abad idea.

"There is something about whole food that when it goes into the body it'smore than 90% absorbed, while [with] a supplement you absorb only about50%," says Sandon.

Moreover, says Sandon, because the components of different foods worktogether, they may offer a more complete and balanced source of nutrients.

"It could be something more than just the omega-3s in fish that make itso healthy," says Sandon. "It could be the amino acids that providebenefits we are not going to see in fish-oil supplements alone."

And if you're thinking fish-oil capsules will help you avoid thecontamination risks of fresh fish, think again. Because supplements are notregulated in the U.S., Sandon says, some may contain concentrated amounts ofthe same toxins found in fresh fish. And because the oil is so concentrated,the supplements can also produce an unpleasant body odor.

More important, experts say, there is a danger of overdosing on fish-oilsupplements, particularly if you take more than the recommended amount. Doingso can increase your risk of bleeding or bruising. This isn't likely to happenwhen you get your intake from foods.

The one-time fish oil supplements can really help is if you need to reduceyour levels of triglycerides, a dangerous blood fat linked to heart disease.The American Heart Association recommends that people with extremely hightriglycerides get 2 to 4 daily grams of omega-3s (containing EPA and DHA) incapsules -- but only in consultation with their doctors.

"The key here is to never take these supplements without your doctor'sconsent," says Magee. "This is not something you want to fool with onyour own."

Heart Healthy Omega-3 Recipes

While adding fish to your diet is an important way to ensure you get enoughomega-3s, Magee offers these two recipes to help get you started using flaxseedas well.

Each portion offers 1 gram, a day's supply, of omega-3 fatty acids. Keep inmind that you don't have to get a daily supply of omega-3s, as long as youmaintain a weekly intake of 6 grams to 8 grams, your body will have what itneeds.

No-Bake Peanut Butter Power Bars

Journal as: 1 1/2 cereal bar or 1/4 cup granola cereal + 2teaspoons peanut butter

From The Flax Cookbook by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD (Marlowe &Co.)

Canola cooking spray
1 tablespoon butter or canola margarine
1/3 cup reduced-fat smooth peanut butter
2 cups miniature marshmallows, lightly packed
1 cup low-fat granola
1 cup Rice Krispies cereal (or other puffed rice cereal)
1/3 cup ground golden flaxseed (golden flax works better in this recipe)

  • Coat an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with canola cooking spray. Put the butter,peanut butter, and marshmallows into a medium-sized microwave safe bowl andmicrowave on high for 30 seconds, or until mixture is just melted. Stir toblend.
  • Microwave again briefly if the mixture isn't melted or smooth. Then stir ingranola, puffed rice and flaxseed.
  • Spread the mixture in the prepared pan, flattening it evenly with a sheetof waxed paper. Let it cool completely before cutting into 8 equal-sizedbars.

Yield: 8 bars

Per serving: 207 calories, 5.5 grams protein, 31 gramscarbohydrate, 8 grams of fat ( 2 grams saturated fat, 1 gram monounsaturatedfat, 1.8 grams polyunsaturated fat) , 4 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams fiber,174 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 35%. Omega-3 fatty acids = 1 gram,Omega-6 fatty acids = 0.7 gram.

Mocha-ccino Freeze

Journal as: 1/2 cup regular yogurt sweetened + 1/4 cupwhole-grain, unsweetened cereal

From The Flax Cookbook by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD (Marlowe &Co.)

1 cup low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt, light vanilla icecream or ice milk (nonfat or sugar-free brands can be substituted ifdesired)
1/4 cup low-fat milk
1/4 cup strong decaf coffee, chilled (use caffeinated if you prefer). To makedouble-strength coffee, brew twice the amount you want without increasing thewater.
1 cup ice cubes
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed

  • Add all ingredients to your blender or food processor
  • Blend on highest speed until smooth (about 10 seconds). Scrape sides ofblender, and blend again for five more seconds.
  • Pour into two glasses and enjoy!

Yield: 2 smoothies.

Per serving: 157 calories, 7 grams protein, 23 gramscarbohydrate, 4.5 grams fat ( 1.3 saturated fat, 1 grams monounsaturated fat,1.9 grams polyunsaturated fat), 7 milligrams cholesterol, 2.3 grams fiber, 79milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 26%. Omega-3 fatty acids = 1.5 grams.Omega-6 fatty acids = 0.4 gram.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; Lona Sandon, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; associate professor of nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, consultant, WebMD Weight Loss clinic; author, The Flax Cookbook (Marlowe and Company), Northern California; American Heart Association Advisory on Omega-3 fatty acids; Food and Drug Administration Advisory on Fish Consumption.

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