Numerous studies point to the many benefits of these fats, which are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). Even if you have the typical dieter’s fear of fat, it’s important to consume omega-rich fats as opposed to the trans fats found in refined foods and overly processed supermarket oils.
The bulk of scientific study has focused on alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in canola, fish, flax seed, walnuts, and their oils. “The evidence for the cardioprotective nature of omega-3 fatty acids is abundant,” finds one recent study, which recommends 1 gram (g)/day of these long-chain fatty acids (either from oily fish or fish-oil supplements) for anyone with known coronary heart disease. And even healthy individuals should consume at least 250 to 500 milligrams (mg)/day, experts advise.
The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis finds a daily intake of omega-3 fats is inversely linked to lower levels of inflammation, believed by most experts to be the underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. Other research finds that American men who eat little or no seafood can lower their risks for coronary heart disease by 47 percent for each g/day of dietary ALA. And the Nurses’ Health Study, following 84,000 women for 16 years, shows similar results for heart disease mortality. Omega-3 fats may even protect autistic individuals from cardiovascular problems caused by antipsychotic drugs used in their treatment.
Deficiency in this healthy fat can raise blood pressure. Increased intake of omega-3 supplements lowers triglyceride levels. Since high triglycerides are linked to Type 2 diabetes, it’s not surprising that upping intake of omega 3s can lower the risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
That’s not all! Research finds that omega 3s can also:
- lessen the risk for macular degeneration (as does omega 9 found in olive oil)
- help prevent depression and learning deficits
- reduce inflammation in carpal tunnel syndrome in combination with omega-6- gamma linolenic acid (GLA)
- protect neurological and visual development during the last trimester of pregnancy and possibly enhance IQ and immunity in children after birth
- help protect against certain cancers including breast, colon, liver, and prostate
- fight a number of other conditions like asthma, Crohn’s, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
While most Americans consume too many of the less beneficial forms of omega-6 fatty acids found in processed foods, linoleic acid (LA) found in black currant seed, borage seed, and evening primrose oils—often marketed as gamma linolenic acid (GLA)—has healing powers. Like omega 3s, omega 6s are an important structural component of cell membranes. Omega 6s are also the most effective fats for lowering total and LDL (lousy) cholesterol levels. Used in combination with omega 3s, omega 6s can significantly lower deaths from heart disease and appear to help protect vision.
GLA also inhibits inflammation, and randomized, placebo-controlled research finds it effective for eczema (atopic dermatitis). This omega-6-rich EFA is also useful for diabetes, PMS, osteoporosis, ulcerative colitis, and fibrocystic breast pain, possibly offering “long-term implications for prevention of breast cancer, says Tori Hudson, ND.
Because many people cannot convert LA into GLA efficiently, she believes that “virtually all North Americans are deficient.”
Other Healthy Omegas
Found in olives (and their oil), omega 9 has also been linked to heart health in numerous studies, while omega 7 (from sea buckthorn) is rich in carotenoids and other substances believed to fight aging, promote healthy digestion, and support urinary-genital health.
“Comparison of Dietary Conjugated Linoleic Acid with Safflower Oil on Body Composition in Obese Postmenopausal Women with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus” by L. E. Norris et al., Am J Clin Nutr, 9/09
“Dietary Fats: Know Which Types to Choose,” www.mayoclinic.com, 1/31/09
“Know Your Fats,” American Heart Association, www.heart.org, 9/2/10
“Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” www.umm.edu, 6/25/09