For many years, dietary fats had a bad reputation. Low-fat diets promised weight loss, and people were told that eating fat would make them gain weight. But fats are actually necessary for several processes throughout the body, and certain kinds may even help you lose weight. You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, but are you getting enough of them in your diet?
Fats aren’t necessarily bad for you; in fact, some are actually good for you. Evidence also shows that low-fat diets aren’t very successful. A meta-analysis showed that low-fat diets did not work as well as other types of calorie restriction. The body uses all fats, including “unhealthy” saturated fats, for important processes. Fats also help you feel fuller, and full for longer periods of time, because they are slower to digest and don’t cause blood sugar crashes. In short, avoiding fats completely isn’t just unnecessary — it’s detrimental to your health and weight-loss efforts.
That being said, all fats are not created equal. Some fats, such as saturated fats, should be consumed in small amounts and ideally, from healthy foods such as olive oil, avocados, and eggs (these foods contain high amounts of healthy unsaturated fat with just a small amount of saturated fat).
In addition, some fats can be synthesized (made) by the body and used efficiently in the ways the body requires. Others must be obtained through diet and supplements because the body cannot make them on its own. These important fats are called essential fatty acids, or EFAs. Everyone should take care to get enough of them in their diet for their important benefits.
In particular, getting enough omega-3s, one kind of EFA, should be a focus in any healthy lifestyle.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat; specifically, they are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They have a number of health benefits and have been widely studied.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t getting enough of them in their diets. In fact, research shows that we may be eating too much omega-6 and not nearly enough omega-3. Many experts believe that humans evolved on a diet that included omega-6 and omega-3 in equal amounts, but that is far from the case with today’s modern diet.
Omega-3s are broken into different types of fat, and 11 types have been discovered to date. But, the three most-studied types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in plant foods such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils, as well as walnuts and chia seeds
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in eggs, fatty fish, and algae
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which, like DHA, is found in fatty fish and algae
Even within these types, EPA and DHA are better options for a health boost. While ALA is found in many healthy foods and is a good source of energy, the body has to convert ALA into EPA and then into DHA in order to use it. This only happens with a small amount of the ALA you consume.
So, it’s more efficient to eat foods or take supplements that already contain EPA and DHA if you’re looking for specific omega-3 benefits. And while fish are the most well-known source of EPA and DHA, they actually get their omega-3 content from eating microalgae. Microalgae contain the omega-3s, and the fish accumulate omega-3s by eating the algae. That’s why eating fatty fish is a great way to get omega-3s: the omega-3s stick around in the fat on the fish, which humans eat (or consume in a fish oil supplement).
So what can omega-3 fatty acids do for your body? Omega-3s are important for proper function of the cell membranes in the body. DHA, specifically, is added to infant formula for its role in a baby’s brain and eye development. It’s also found naturally in human breast milk. For men, omega-3s are crucial to fertility, as they are needed for healthy sperm.
Omega-3s also have anti-inflammatory properties that may help ward off diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. While more research is being done on omega-3s, these are some of the benefits that have been discovered to date:
1. Treat or prevent depression
We know that the brain requires omega-3s for proper function, but it appears that eating enough omega-3s may help alleviate depression symptoms or prevent it altogether. The evidence speaks for itself: One study proposes that the benefits of omega-3s could serve as a future treatment for depression, another small study found EPA to be as effective as an antidepressant, and a meta-analysis states that omega-3s show “showed significant antidepressant efficacy.”
Depression is, of course, a complex and potentially serious condition that requires a doctor’s care. But, it would certainly be beneficial for those with depression to start getting more omega-3s in their diet — in addition to their doctor’s recommendations of therapy and/or medications.
2. Lower risk of heart disease
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 600,000 people each year. And while omega-3s may not be a cure-all, they are certainly a healthy step towards avoiding heart disease.
A meta-analysis found that EPA and DHA can reduce the risk of heart disease. Another review found that a higher intake of fish was associated with a lower risk of heart failure and sudden cardiac death. And, The American Heart Association says that omega-3s could help reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, and they recommend fish oil supplements as a safe therapy for this.
Keep in mind it’s also important to follow a doctor’s instructions to reduce heart attack and stroke risk. This may include a healthy diet, exercise, and in some cases, medication. Omega-3s are a great way to give your heart a healthy boost naturally.
3. Improve conditions of metabolic syndrome
Omega-3s appear to have major benefits for people who have metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is not one condition, but a group of conditions that increase a person’s risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The American Heart Association says it affects nearly a quarter of American adults and equates to a high risk of heart attack and stroke. Conditions within metabolic syndrome include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat, and high cholesterol.
One study found that omega-3 supplements helped people with metabolic syndrome lose significantly more weight and lower their heart disease risk factors when compared to a placebo.
Another study found that the anti-inflammatory action of omega-3s helped people with metabolic syndrome lower their risk of health issues, and their findings support the recommendation for regular fatty fish consumption in people with this condition.
4. Preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
A number of studies have found that lower intake of omega-3s equals a higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline. One study concluded that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in both preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease. Their safety, lower cost, and other health benefits make them an attractive option as a cognitive health measure.
Another study found that DHA is essential for supporting brain functions and appears to provide protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s and dementia have no cure, so consuming more omega-3s is a healthy way to help prevent these devastating issues and keep the brain healthy as long as possible.
Foods high in omega-3
Even with the amazing health benefits of omega-3s, there is no established recommended intake for EPA and DHA. Without a set amount, it’s best to focus on eating foods that have EPA and DHA naturally, and to talk with your doctor if you’re interested in a fish oil or omega-3 supplement.
Include the following foods in your diet to increase your DHA, DPA, and EPA intake:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, and sardines
- Eggs rich in omega-3 (look at the package to see how much they contain)
- Grass-fed beef in moderation (avoid grain-fed beef, which contains little, if any, omega-3 and often contains high amounts of unhealthy fats)
- DHA-fortified foods and beverages, which often contain added fish oil or algae oil for their omega-3 boost
Plenty of healthy foods also contain ALA, and though it’s not as valuable as EPA and DHA, they are an important part of a healthy diet. They include:
- Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts)
- Flaxseed oil
- Leafy greens such as kale and spinach
Omega-3s: More benefits yet to come
There are a number of other possible benefits to omega-3s that don’t yet have a lot of studies to back them up. But, it’s safe to say that omega-3s should be a part of every person’s diet, both for these benefits and for the many other benefits that are likely yet to be discovered. As omega-3s continue to be studied, we are confident that more advantages will be realized.
It may take some time for the anti-inflammatory effects omega-3 fatty acid to fully work throughout the body. You can aid this process by avoiding inflammatory foods (such as sugar, fried foods, processed foods, wheat, and dairy) and eating an anti-inflammatory diet.