Fat was demonized for far too long. Remember the low-fat craze of the 90s? Somewhere along the way we were taught to believe that all fats are created equally, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that there are certain so-called “good” fats that are absolutely essential for optimal health. You yourself may be deficient in some of these fats. We’re talking about omega-3s.
The major omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The latter are the fatty acids found in cold-water fish and fish oils and are revered by the nutrition community today. But that wasn’t always the case. Scientists first became interested in omega-3s while studying the Inuit people. This ethnic group eats nearly 10 pounds of meat and blubber a day, with almost no reports of cardiovascular disease! The researchers soon realized that there had to be something about omega-3 fats that was different from other types of fats.
The benefits of omega-3 oils are still being researched. However, a number of positive effects are known. First, omega-3 oils decrease VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins), which are the worst of the worst when it comes to causing coronary artery disease. This has the effect of lowering triglycerides. Secondly, omega-3 oils encourage the production of good prostaglandins over bad prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that serve many functions in the body. The good ones make blood more “slippery” and tend to relax the smooth muscles in blood vessels, allowing for improved cardiovascular health. Of course this is the CliffsNotes version, but you get the idea.
But what about non-Inuit populations? What’s the takeaway? A New England Journal of Medicine article found that a group of Dutchmen reduced their risk of death from coronary heart disease by 50 percent by eating fish daily (Kromhout et al, 1985). Another study in 1995 showed that eating fish just once a week could reduce the risk of heart attack by 50 percent. This study also examined the omega-3 content of the patient’s blood, and found that those who had the highest blood levels of omega-3 oils had a 70 percent lower risk of heart disease compared with those who had the lowest levels (Siscovick et al, 1995).
Other research indicates that increasing omega-3 oils and decreasing omega-6 oils (most vegetable oils) decreases the risk of cancer (Rose, 1997). The benefits of eating omega-3 oils extend into other diseases as well, including arthritis, asthma, depression, and possibly bipolar disorders.
The research is evolving, but in the meantime, it’s safe to say that omega-3s do a body good. Here’s to your health!