Omega 3s: The Right Fat

Mind-boggling medical advances have been made in the last 100 years. In 1900, lifesaving procedures such as kidney transplants and heart-saving angioplasty were barely a dream. But in that year, only one in seven people died of cardiovascular disease—and only one in 30 died of cancer. Today’s heart disease and cancer death rates make it clear that something basic and critical to health has drastically changed.

Part of the change in our collective health status can be attributed to pollution from the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals, smoking, industrial toxins, and automobile exhausts. Another important contributor is the mass production of foods. More than half the calories in the normal American diet now come from foods from which much of the mineral, vitamin, essential fatty acid, and fiber content has been removed during processing. And major changes have been made in the kinds and amounts of fats we consume and in the way we process them.

EFAs: Why We Need Them

Omega-3 fatty acids are part of the nutrient group known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega 3s are required for the normal functioning of every cell in the body, including every heart cell, artery cell, and nerve cell.

The body’s content of EFAs fluctuates with the fatty acid content of our diet. The optimal dose of EFAs varies with body size, state of health, stress, season, and climate. In order for EFAs to be utilized properly, other essential nutrient factors must be present in the amounts required for optimal cell function. Vitamin E, for example, is an important cofactor since it works to prevent the EFAs in our bodies from becoming rancid. 

Many of the health problems of our time are degenerative conditions brought on by dietary deficiencies. Increasing the level of omega 3s in our diets can maintain a healthy nervous system, boost the immune system, guard against digestive problems, maintain a healthy weight, and decrease the risk for insulin resistance, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

These fats are also helpful in decreasing inflammation in arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, dampening the over-response of the immune system in autoimmune diseases, improving bone strength, increasing energy and stamina, and speeding wound healing.

Research shows that omega 3s lower most of the major cardiovascular risk factors including high triglycerides, high blood pressure, the tendency to form clots in the arteries, and irregular heart rhythm. Based on data from the Physicians’ Health Study, Christine M. Albert, MD, MPH, and her colleagues found that omega-3 fatty acids even protect against sudden death from heart attack. Dr. Albert’s study concluded that “increasing the intake of n-3 fatty acids by eating more fish or by taking supplements is an intervention that could be applied . . . at low cost and little risk.”

Where to Find Omega 3s

While many foods contain some omega-3 fatty acids, not all of them are useful. Green vegetables contain good fats, but you’d have to eat 100 pounds per day to achieve optimum intake. That leaves three practical sources of these good fats: Fatty fish (especially those caught wild in cold water) and fish oils. Safety of the supply is a consideration since there are now concerns about PCBs, dioxins, and other industrial toxins in many fish. Seeds, including flax, hemp, walnuts, and soybeans. Seed oils that are made with health (rather than shelf life) as a top priority. These can be found in capsule form as well as bottled oils.

How Much Do You Need?

You will know you’ve reached your optimum intake of EFAs by your soft, smooth, velvety skin. When the weather is hot, about one tablespoon per 100 pounds of body weight per day is a good target. In places where winters are cold, aim for one tablespoon per 50 pounds of body weight per day.

Limit your intake of sweets and starches to the amount you can actually burn. If you are overweight, it’s because you’re eating more carbohydrates than you’re burning. Carbs in excess of what you body burns force the body into fat production. To lose body fat, you must lower carbohydrate intake and/or increase physical activity. Get your carbohydrates from green vegetables rather than from breakfast cereals, bread, potatoes, pasta, grains, or corn.

More from Nutrition 101