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The Skinny on Fats

Looking at omega-3s

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The Skinny on Fats

Good fats, bad fats, no fat, lots of fat? You’d have to be living under a rock not to have at least heard about the debate going on in the world of fat.

Good fats, bad fats, no fat, lots of fat? You’d have to be living under a rock not to have at least heard about the debate going on in the world of fat.

It used to be that we declared fat the enemy: all fat was considered equal and it was no good for anyone.

But after 30 years of research it appears that all is not bad in the land of fat. There are the good, then there are the bad—and the ugly—fat players, but the good are exceptionally good when it comes to cardiovascular health.

Fat essentials

Omega fats are essential because our bodies need them, can’t produce them, and require that we get them from outside sources. There are two main types of essential fats: alpha-linolenic acid, or omega-3s, and linoleic acid, or omega-6s.

We have started hearing about the benefits of omega-9s, found in olive oil and other monounsaturated fats, but omega-9 oils are not considered essential because our bodies can make them from the unsaturated fat we eat in our diet.

All are important in a healthy eating program, but let’s look at the benefits of the essentials, specifically omega-3s, a bit more closely.

Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fatty acids. Most studies seem to focus on DHA and EPA from fish sources as the most important in preventing a number of health conditions, particularly cardiovascular disease.

So what do the studies say?

An ounce of prevention …

Through many years of research, the consensus seems to be that prevention is the best approach to decreasing the risk of dying from a heart attack in healthy individuals.

A number of studies into essential fatty acids’ role in heart health followed previously healthy men and women over an 11- to 30-year period to determine whether a diet high in fish or fish products would influence their risk of heart-related incidents, specifically sudden death from a heart attack.

The majority of the studies concluded that individuals, male or female, who had higher amounts of alpha-linolenic acid in their bloodstream from fish or fish products showed a significant decrease in risk of sudden death from a heart-related incident compared to those individuals who ate no fish at all.

It’s never too late

Although prevention is essential, there also appear to be benefits for those individuals who have previously had a heart attack or heart-related incident.

Studies have also suggested that having a higher level of omega-3 fats, specifically from fish oil, circulating in the bloodstream seems to provide protection and lowered risk for death in individuals who have already had a heart attack.

In a study involving 11,324 male patients who had a recent heart attack, it was determined that those participants consuming an 850 mg supplement of DHA and EPA showed a significant decrease in the incidence of sudden death resulting from a future heart attack.

The study was then reassessed to determine if the benefits of consuming the fish oil would be present over extended periods. After a three-and-a-half-year period the group consuming fish oil showed a dramatic decrease in the incidence of sudden cardiac death as compared to a control group consuming no fish oil.

How to get those omega-3s

Yes, studies indicate that omega-3 fats, including from fish oil, seem to have a beneficial effect for both healthy individuals and those who have previously had a heart attack. So, the question then becomes: what is the best way to get healthy levels of omega-3s in your diet—from the source or from supplements?

The answer is to eat a variety of foods that are rich in the good fats while reducing, or removing altogether, those foods that contain the bad ones (see below).

When it comes to fish oils, it appears that supplementation is as effective as eating the fish itself. There are conflicting messages from regulatory bodies about the amount of toxic metals and pollutants in fresh fish, and the fish source is also important. Farmed fish, for example, are generally lower in essential fatty acids than their wild counterparts.

If you prefer to put some fish on your fork, try to eat two servings per week of fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring. If fresh fish isn’t always available, supplements from trusted manufacturers who guarantee that their products are free of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium are a good alternative. Consult your health practitioner for recommended dosages.

Now that we know that fat is no longer a dirty word—unless it’s the wrong kind of fat—we can incorporate the many sources of good fats into our diet to help sustain good health and well-being.

The good and the bad fats

In the world of fat, it’s not whether or not you eat fats; it’s what kind of fats you consume. So, how do you know which ones are good and which are bad?

Good fats
Monounsaturated fats:

  • Avocados 
  • Oils (canola, olive, sesame) 
  • Olives
  • nuts (almonds, cashews, filberts, pecans, pistachios) 
  • Peanut and almond butters (natural) 
  • Sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds

Polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3s:

  • Fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines)
  • Flaxseeds 
  • Hempseeds 
  • Chia seeds 
  • Nuts

Bad fats
Trans fats: 

  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats 
  • Margarine (stick) 
  • Shortening 
  • Nondairy creamers 
  • Many processed baked or fried goods

Saturated fats:

  • Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb 
  • Lard 
  • Bacon

Major sources of omega-3s

  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines 
  • Krill and algae products 
  • Flaxseeds, hempseeds, and chia seeds 
  • Nut oils, especially walnut
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