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How to Relate Omega-3 Fatty Acids to a Healthy Diet

Omega-3 fatty acids are heart-friendly nutrients that improve any diet. The fats make the tiny blood particles called platelets less sticky, reducing the possibility that they’ll form blood clots that obstruct blood vessels and trigger heart attacks.

Omega-3s also knock down levels of bad cholesterol so effectively that the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.

A 2002 Harvard survey of more than 43,000 male health professionals shows that the ones who eat 3 to 5 ounces of fish just once a month have a 40 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke, a stroke caused by a blood clot in a cranial artery.

The Harvard study did not include women, but a report on women and stroke published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 says that women who eat about 4 ounces of fish — think one small can of tuna — two to four times a week appear to cut their risk of stroke by a similar 40 percent.

These benefits are, in large part, because of the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, which are unsaturated fatty acids found most commonly in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. The primary omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid, which your body converts to hormonelike substances called eicosanoids.

The eicosanoids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — reduce inflammation, perhaps by inhibiting an enzyme called COX-2, which is linked to inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The Arthritis Foundation says omega-3s relieve RA joint inflammation, swelling, and pain.

Omega-3s are also bone builders. Fish oils enable your body to create calciferol, a naturally occurring form of vitamin D, the nutrient that enables your body to absorb bone-building calcium — which may be why omega-3s appear to help hold minerals in bone — and increase the formation of new bone.

You can find respectable amounts of omega-3s in

  • Anchovies

  • Haddock

  • Herring

  • Mackerel

  • Salmon

  • Sardines

  • Scallops

  • Tuna (albacore)

  • Broccoli

  • Kale

  • Spinach

  • Canola oil

  • Walnut oil

  • Flaxseed oil

Before you shout, “Waiter! Bring me the salmon, mackerel, herring, or whatever,” here’s the other side of the coin. Earlier research suggests that frequent servings of fish may increase the risk of a stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.

This situation is common among Native Alaskans who eat plenty of fish and have a higher than normal incidence of hemorrhagic, or bleeding, strokes. True, the Harvard study found no significant link between fish consumption and bleeding strokes, but researchers say more studies are needed to nail down the relationship — or lack thereof.

Not all omegas are equally beneficial. Omega-6 fatty acids — polyunsaturated fats found in beef, pork, and several vegetable oils, including corn, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean, peanut, and sesame oils — are chemical cousins of omega-3s, but the omega-6s lack the benefits of the omega-3s.

Despite all the benefits fish bring to a healthful diet, some fish, particularly those caught in the wild (rather than raised on a fish farm), may be contaminated with metals such as mercury, which has made its way into the water as industrial pollution and may be hazardous for women who are or may be pregnant.

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