by Heather David, HHP, CPT, NC
“Fat is public enemy number one” might as well have been the headlines in 1984 when the surgeon general began pushing the agenda that reducing fat would end heart disease. As a matter of fact the president of the American Heart Association told Time magazine that if everyone did so, “we will have atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of the body’s arteries) conquered” by the year 2000. Sadly they were incorrect and in 1999 the Surgeon General said so due to the science of dietary fat being more complicated than they originally thought they would have to drop their report denouncing fat. As a matter of fact, heart disease continued to rise, and continues to rise, despite the American public working hard to reduce their fat intake. One of the reasons for this is that certain fats are actually good for the circulatory system, joints and the nervous system. That fat is polyunsaturated fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids do a huge number of good things for our body. They are anti-inflammatory and pro-cellular health working to prevent, reduce and even reverse many health conditions when eaten regularly. Omega-3’s can help treat autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis1, lupus2 and psoriasis3 by cooling off the inflamed system and providing restorative properties for building healthy tissues. Omega-3 fatty acids are also an extremely important part of the nervous system having a protective/preventative affect of age-related mental decline leading to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease4,5. Other brain health protective affects include reduction in depression6 and anxiety7. As if that was not enough, they are responsible for helping to build many healthy tissues throughout the body leading to greater health of many essential systems such as the colon8 and skin (preventing acne and wrinkles)9.
Knowing this means we must take action. So how much do we need and from where? Although supplements can be taken, the best sources are natural, whole foods that provide great synergy within the body. Synergy is all the parts and pieces of the food (phytonutrients, macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals) working together to create a better, stronger, and healthier effect than each of the individual nutrients would provide on their own. There are two main food types from which omega-3’s can be obtained – fish and plants. Fish, by far offer the best source, as it is significantly more bioavailable than plants. Bioavailability is the ability of the food source to be absorbed and utilized by the body. Fish contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both of which the body can utilize very easily. Plant based sources have ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which does not break down into a usable form well in the human body. Some bodies convert as little as 1% of the ALA consumed10. That being said, there is other great benefits of plant-based foods that contain ALA so do not completely write them off.
The highest source of EPA and DHA are found in cold-water fish, especially salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Any fish, however, will provide some EPA and DHA, so enjoy your favorite variety. Excellent plant sources include flax seeds (which must be ground to access the ALA), chia seeds and walnuts. In general getting about 600 mg of EPA/DHA per day, or 12 ounces of fatty fish per week, will give you enough omega-3 fatty acids for good health. Here are some links to delicious ways to make that happen:
If you choose to mix it up with some plant sources, you can enjoy the flax, chia seeds and walnuts in a smoothie, sprinkled on a salad, added to a stir-fry or in the recipes at the end of the article in this link.
Finally, if you are struggling to get enough in, you can supplement with a good whole-food based fish oil supplement. This one from Vital Choice is one of the best sources of pure fish oil with the benefit of another powerful antioxidant astaxanthin.
In summary, scientists got it wrong in the 80’s and 90’s recommending a low-fat diet to prevent heart disease. The truth of the matter is that it is just so much more complicated than that. We don’t need a low-fat diet but rather a right fat diet. Choose to eat your fats from healthy, whole food sources such as cold-water fish (especially salmon, mackerel and sardines) and plant foods (such as flax, chia and walnuts). Eating these omega-3 fatty acid rich foods have the potential to prevent many health conditions that plague the American public and can lead to a greater quality of life.
10 Sears, William and Martha Sears. Prime Time Health: A scientifically proven plan for feeling young and living longer. New York: Little, Brown Spark. 2010. Ppg 205.