Essential Fatty Acids: What You Need to Know (Part 4)

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This week, we conclude our series on essential fatty acids. (See the previous entries at "Essential Fatty Acids: What You Need to Know [Part 1]," "Part 2," and "Part 3.") I hope that this information hasn’t been too technical for you. However, you don’t always read or hear about such things as essential fatty acids in the newspaper or on television, so my thought is that this has been an interesting topic.

We’ve looked at one of the two groups of essential fatty acids, the omega-6 fatty acids. This week, we’ll focus on the omega-3 fatty acids. Back in April of 2007, I wrote about omega-3 fatty acids (see “Fabulous Fish Oil Findings: Part 1,” “Part 2,” and “Part 3”), so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here. (However, a review is often a good thing!).

Omega-3’s: What Do They Do?
If you’re up on your fats, you most likely regard omega-3 fatty acids, or fats, as a good thing. And, indeed, they are. The omega-3’s include alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Remember that we need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in our diets for overall health. ALA comes mainly from plant foods, such as flax seed, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, some nuts and seeds, and even algae. EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish and seafood, which is why most nutrition and health professionals encourage you to eat more seafood (except for the fried kind, of course!).

You probably know that omega-3 fats may help lower the risk of heart disease. These essential fatty acids do so by preventing arrhythmias, decreasing the risk of blood clots, lowering triglyceride (blood fat) levels, slowing the growth of plaque inside artery walls, decreasing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure. Maybe these should be renamed omega-3 miracle fatty acids!

What you may not know, though, are some of the other important roles of omega-3 fats in the body, which include treating rheumatoid arthritis, improving inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis), and helping to manage asthma, depression, and schizophrenia. Please realize that the point is not to stop taking your asthma medicine, for example, but that including more omega-3’s from food sources or from supplements may help alleviate some symptoms of these disorders.

Are Omega-3’s From Plants As Good As Those From Fish?
This is a very good question, especially if you happen to be a vegetarian or simply don’t like fish. The issue is that the body must convert ALA (found in plant foods) to EPA and DHA (found in fish). And the conversion isn’t necessarily equal. In other words, you have to eat a fairly large amount of ALA to produce a significant amount of EPA and DHA in the body. In fact, only about 5% to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA.

Unfortunately, certain factors can hinder the conversion process. These factors include a diet high in saturated and trans fat and cholesterol, alcohol, lack of adequate calories and protein, and a deficiency in certain nutrients such as zinc, copper, magnesium and calcium.

Also, it seems that people with diabetes may have a harder time converting ALA to EPA and DHA, too. A safe bet, then, is to take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, especially if your diet is lacking in seafood. If you’re a vegetarian and taking fish in any form is not an option for you, just be sure to include sources of ALA in your diet every day, such as walnuts, flax seed, flax seed oil, soybeans, tofu, olive oil, and canola oil. Some other foods may contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acid-enriched eggs, fortified margarines, some yogurts, some salad dressings, and hemp-fortified cereals.

Some good news about plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids: They may help promote and protect bone health by impeding the breakdown of bone, which may help reduce the chances of osteoporosis.

Summing Up
So, take a moment and review the sources of fat in your diet. The point is not necessarily to be on low-fat diet (unless you’ve been advised to do so by your physician or dietitian), but to focus on ingesting the healthier fats, namely the liquid oils. In addition, aim for a few sources of omega-3 fatty acids every day. If that’s a struggle for you, talk to your health-care team about taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. The goal is consume between 500 and 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day, and possibly more if you already have heart disease.

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