The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Your Diet and Your Health
Dr. John Lewis Ph. D.
20 August 2016
You hear the recommendations about the proper way to eat and you wonder how much of your diet should be made up of protein, carbohydrate, and fat.  While the amount of carbohydrate and protein in the diet continue to be hotly debated by both scientists and the media alike, the recommendation for fat has been fairly consistent in recent times.  The standard recommendation for total fat intake is 30% of calories in diet, broken down into 3 types:  saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.  However, the difference between a low-fat or high-fat diet is not well known in terms of its ultimate effect on longevity and health outcomes.  Nonetheless, the importance of fat for the prevention of chronic diseases continues to be increasingly recognized.  Thus, you still may wonder about the best type of fat to eat for keeping your brain, heart, and other organ systems healthy.  The intake of trans, or chemically-modified (hydrogenated), fat should be strictly avoided, as it is related to increased risks of various diseases and disorders.

While saturated fats are good when consumed from foods like avocado, coconut, and other nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 essential fatty acids, are very important for optimizing your health and helping to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.  Omega-3 fatty acids are “essential,” meaning that we as humans cannot synthesize them ourselves, so we must obtain them from our food.  In fact, the lack of omega-3 fatty acid intake is thought to be related to the unfortunate rise in chronic diseases, e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, among others.  Dietary habits have shifted to include too much omega-6 fatty acid intake, while omega-3 fatty acid consumption has declined.

Three particular omega-3 fatty acids are important for human health:  α-linolenic acid (ALA) from plants and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish, krill, algae, or plankton.  Common sources of plant-derived ALA include flax, chia, walnuts, pecans, walnuts, hemp, algae, and phytoplankton, while animal sources of EPA and DHA include fish, krill, and eggs.  Although the effect of dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids is not unequivocal, much of the inconsistency is due to a small number of subjects, an intervention period that is too short to show an effect, too low dose of the product, failure to assess the starting omega-3 level of the subjects, using healthy subjects rather than those with relevant health challenges, such as cardiovascular disease, and improper analysis of the data, such as not accounting for factors such as age and gender that may bias the results.  Several studies have failed to show that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, or death.

However, one recent population-based analysis showed that blood levels of total omega-3 fatty acids were related to a slightly lower incidence of death due to cardiovascular disease.  This finding is important because it comes from a combination of data from 19 studies in 16 countries assessing over 45,000 people.  The study also looked at blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, not self-reported consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from foods, and compared those to death from cardiovascular disease.  Another study showed that marine omega-3 fatty acids improved the survival rate of those who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.  The findings from this study are also significant because it included the data from over 1,600 people who had been previously diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

One of the most important questions to answer is:  What is the effective daily amount for omega-3 fatty acids?  The inconsistent findings in the literature have perhaps been due to a lower dose (0.5 to 1.0 gram/day) used in these studies.  Thus, given that individuals absorb omega-3 fatty acids at different levels and that products have varying bioavailability (a measure of how much the body can absorb), a higher daily amount may be necessary, particularly for people with serious health challenges or those who wish to prevent a disease or disorder in the first place.  In fact, a recent study showed that a 4 gram daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids was shown to be effective compared to a placebo for improving cardiac function in a group of people who had suffered a heart attack.

Finally, it is important to consider that omega-3 fatty acids are vulnerable to oxidation and rancidity, so buy from a manufacturer who keeps its products from being exposed to air in the production process.  Also, as with all dietary supplements, purchase your omega-3 fatty acids from a manufacturer who sells products with high-quality ingredients, ensuring your best chance to get the most absorbable and effective nutrients for your health.  Enjoy plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to help to ensure your good health!

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Note: Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any action before consulting with a health care professional.

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