Ken Stark, MSc
When women think of their health, they worry about breast cancer and osteoporosis--not heart disease. Heart disease is an issue for their grandfathers, fathers and husbands.
When women think of their health, they worry about breast cancer and osteoporosis not heart disease. Heart disease is an issue for their grandfathers, fathers and husbands. In reality, heart disease and stroke are the two top killers of Canadian women, responsible for approximately 40 percent of all deaths. This is especially the case for women 50 and older. After menopause, a woman's risk of developing heart disease increases greatly. The lack of the hormone estrogen is believed to be the main reason, but recent research suggests hormone replacement therapy may not eliminate heart disease risk in women.
Good Fats and Oils
How can women reduce their risk of heart disease? One way is to eat more fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids.
Many people are aware that cholesterol is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). However, recent studies show that, especially for women, another type of blood fat called triglycerides is a very important risk factor. Triglycerides are fat particles and high amounts in the blood can lead to clogging of the arteries and can cause heart disease.
By decreasing their triglyceride levels, women can significantly decrease their risk of heart disease and consuming omega-3 fatty acids can be effective.
Research on omega-3 fatty acids is a result of observations of the Greenland Inuit. In the 1970s it was believed that all dietary fat promoted heart disease. The Greenland Inuit seemed to be a strange exception to the rule. They consumed very high levels of fat and protein and very little carbohydrates. In fact the Greenland Inuit diet had low amounts of fruits and vegetables and was largely based on what they caught from the sea, namely fish and seal. It was found that by eating seafood the Greenlanders had a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. In particular, their diet contained a lot of eicosapent-aenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two important types of omega-3 fatty acids. People of other seafood-consuming nations such as Japan also have high omega-3 fatty acid intakes and low risk for heart disease.
The Greenland observations encouraged researchers to study the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on men and until recently, there was very little research looking specifically at omega-3 fats and women. At the Department of Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, our research team focused on the benefits of various nutritional products on heart disease risk in women. Our study, published in the American Journal of Nutrition, investigated the benefits of omega-3 fats from fish oils on postmenopausal women. The results were positive. The women in our study reduced their triglyceride levels.
The study was conducted according to strict scientific methods (placebo-controlled and double-blind) with 35 postmenopausal women. The participants taking omega-3 fats took eight capsules of omega-3 fatty acids per day, which contained EPA and DHA. After 28 days the women taking the omega-3 fatty acids had a 26 percent decrease in levels of fat particles (triglycerides) in their blood. (In women, a 26 percent reduction in blood triglycerides can actually decrease the risk of heart disease by 27 percent.)
EPA and DHA are the types of omega-3 fats responsible for most health benefits for the heart. Marine sources of these fats are the best. Research has already revealed that EPA and DHA can decrease triglycerides, inhibit blood clotting and are crucial for proper eye and brain development. It has been recommended that at least 650 mg of EPA plus DHA be consumed per day for overall health benefits.
The best vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids is freshly pressed flax oil which should be taken daily either by tablespoonful (two tablespoons daily is recommended) or on salads and as a topping for cooked vegetables and greens.