Whether it comes in a capsule or on a plate, it's important to get your omega fatty acids.

You may have noticed many products at the grocery store, from yogurt and cheese to bread and eggs, touting their omega-3 content. Omega-3 fatty acids are in the spotlight because scientific evidence suggests many of us are not getting enough of this important nutrient, but we also need omega-6 and -9 fatty acids for good health.

These three fatty acids are called polyunsaturated fatty acids due to their chemical structure.  Polyunsaturated fats have been shown to help decrease LDL cholesterol, or the bad cholesterol, which reduces your risk of developing coronary heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important because they affect heart and brain health, may relieve symptoms of diseases such as arthritis, and are important for brain development in unborn children.

The body makes omega-9 fatty acids as needed, but humans lack the enzymes needed to make omega-3 and -6. Therefore, it’s essential we get these two nutrients from the foods we eat.  This is why omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are referred to as “essential fats.”

As important as these fatty acids are in your diet, research shows that it is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that is most important to getting the maximum health benefits from these essential fats.  Most of us are getting plenty of omega-6 fatty acids because they are in so many of the foods we eat: vegetable oils, poultry, eggs, cereals, and bread, to name a few. But most of us are still not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids.

Eating fish twice a week is the best way to get enough omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Fish contain omega-3s in the two forms your body can use most easily: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  If eating fish doesn’t appeal to you, there are other ways to get omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts and flaxseed, for example, contain another form of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Adults should try to consume about 1/2 to 1 gram of EPA and DHA (as little as 3.5 ounces of salmon) each day or 5 to 10 grams of ALA (about 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil.)  Visit the Brigham and Women’s Health-e-Weight website for a list of other foods rich in omega-3.

It can be difficult to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, especially if you are not eating fish. So you may want to consider a supplement. Check with your physician first, however. When choosing a supplement, look carefully at the label to see how much EPA and DHA it contains. The bottle may say there are 1,000 milligrams (1 gram) of fish oil in each capsule, but this does not mean that there are 1,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA in each capsule.

Whether from food or from supplements, getting enough of this essential fatty acid is important to your health.

This article was adapted from content on the Brigham and Women’s Health-e-Weight website.

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