Why You Need Omega-3s in Your Diet

Omega-3s have been getting a lot of attention. Find out why you need omega-3s and how to get enough.

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Fat certainly has a mixed reputation, but not only do you need fat in your diet, certain kinds of fat are really good for you. One type of fat that is particularly important is omega-3 fatty acids.

What They Are
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They are also essential, meaning they are something your body needs, but can’t make itself and therefore needs to take in through diet. There are three main kinds of omega-3s: ALA (found in plant foods like canola and soy, flaxseeds and walnuts), DHA and EPA (both found in marine sources, like cold-water fish and algae). Your body can convert ALA to EPA, but it is not very efficient at doing it, so it’s best to eat foods with DHA and EPA and not rely solely on ALA-rich foods for your omega-3s.

What They Do
-Heart health: Several studies have shown that omega-3s — and particularly the ones from fish — may help lower risk of heart disease and stroke. For people with heart disease, fish oil supplements may help decrease the risk of heart attack. Eating omega-3s can also help to lower your triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood that can cause heart disease in high quantities) and raising "good" HDL cholesterol. They may also help to lower your blood pressure.

-Inflammation: Several studies have documented various anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s. One study found that older adults with higher intakes of DHA in their diets had lower rates of periodontal disease. Studies also show that fish oil may lower joint pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

-Depression: Omega-3s could lower risk of depression, according to some studies.

-Brain function: Omega-3s are important for prenatal and infant brain and visual development. There is also some research that suggests omega-3s may delay cognitive decline and improve memory in older adults, but more research needs to be done.

How to Get Enough
In 2002, the Institute of Medicine published recommended intakes of omega-3s: 1.1 g per day for women and 1.6 g per day for men, with 10 percent of that coming from EPA/DHA. Since then, research on the specific health benefits of EPA and DHA have prompted experts to re-examine those guidelines and many are recommending a higher daily amount of EPA/DHA in the range of 250–500 mg. The USDA Dietary Guidelines are in line with that, recommending that you eat at least two servings of fish a week to get the omega-3s you need. You can also get EPA and DHA through supplements and fortified foods. Algal oil (which contains DHA) and fish oil (which has both EPA and DHA) are both available as supplements and are being used to supplement foods like milk, juice and peanut butter.

Kerri-Ann is a registered dietitian who writes on food and health trends. Find more of her work at kerriannjennings.com or follow her on Twitter @kerriannrd or Facebook.

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