Omega-3s (EPA and DHA): The keys to heart health
When it comes to heart health, one nutrient stands out from all the rest: omega-3 fatty acids. Obtaining adequate amounts of this nutrient in the diet has been shown to reduce triglycerides (a fat in the blood), slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries and slightly lower blood pressure (1-3). This nutrient is essential in the diet because we cannot synthesize it on our own.
Research indicates that consuming fish and other types of seafood as part of a balanced diet, promotes heart health. These benefits are likely to be attributed primarily to omega-3 fats. In order to reap these benefits, it is important to recognize the different forms of this nutrient and where they can be found.
The difference between omega-3 fatty acids from plants versus animals
Not all omega-3 fats are the same. In fact, each form of this nutrient acts differently in the body. There are three types to be aware of: ALA, EPA and DHA.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fat derived from plant sources like canola oil, flax and walnuts. While ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA in the body, this conversion is largely inefficient and dependent on many factors including your current nutritional status (4). Therefore, it is important to seek out omega-3 fatty acids from sources other than plants.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are omega-3 fats derived from animal sources like fish and are the forms found in fish oil supplements as well as algal supplements. The omega-3 content of fish will vary widely depending on the type of fish, the harvesting practices and where the fish were raised. Generally, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring will have higher amounts of omega-3 fats as opposed to bass, cod and tilapia.
Why EPA and DHA are superior players when it comes to heart health
EPA and DHA are essential for a plethora of reasons, many of them having to do with heart health. These fats are incorporated into cell membranes and may play a role in reducing inflammation. The result of several prospective cohort studies and randomized control trials suggest that fish and fish oil consumption decreases the risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality, including heart attack and sudden cardiac death (4).
The omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids ratio
We need both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, but in a proper ratio. Studies suggest that American diets are low in omega-3 fats and high in omega-6 fats. This is because many foods in today’s westernized world contain vegetable oils like soybean, corn and cottonseed, which are inherently high in omega-6 fats.
While research suggests that we should opt to achieve a ratio closer to 1:1, westernized diets are seeing an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio as high as 15 to 1 (5). This high ratio has been linked to poor health (5).
How to meet your daily requirement
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that the best way to reap the benefits of heart-healthy omega-3 fats is to incorporate two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish per week into the diet.
It is thought that Americans are not meeting this requirement from food alone, which makes regular supplementation a viable option (6). Fish oil supplements boast EPA and DHA, which can help fill in dietary gaps.
Additionally, it is important to note that mercury is a heavy metal found in some sources of seafood in the form of methyl mercury. High levels of methyl mercury can be harmful to the body. Therefore, seafood that is high in EPA and DHA and low in methyl mercury is encouraged including varieties like salmon, herring, sardines and trout, to name a few. This is especially encouraged for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as young children. Some fish are known to have higher levels and should be avoided by these populations. They include swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish. Individuals can opt for high-quality fish oil, like MEG-3®, to reap the omega-3 fatty acid benefits without concern of pollutants.
Omega-3 fatty acids in the forms of EPA and DHA may have significant heart health benefit. Incorporating fatty fish into your diet regularly is one way to obtain those nutrients and reap those benefits. Because many of us are not meeting our needs through food alone, fish oil supplementation may be a worthwhile option to consider.
1. Morris MC, Sacks F, et al: Does fish oil lower blood pressure? A meta-analysis of controlled trials. Circulation 1993; August.
2. Shearer GC, Savinova OV, et al: Fish oil- does it reduce plasma triglycerides? Biochim Biophys Acta 2012; May.
3. Theis F, Garry JM, et al: Association of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids with stability of atherosclerotic plaques: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2003; February 8.
4. Harris W, Mozaffarian D, et al: Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 2009; February 16.
5. Simopoulos AP: The Importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother 2002; October.
6. Papanikolaou Y: U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutr J 2014; April 2.
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I would consider myself “Heart Smart.” I understand that having a healthy lifestyle can support the health of my heart.
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