The Mega Benefits of Omega 3s
In a college nutrition class I took back in the 90s, I overheard a classmate boasting to a small group about how she only ate fat-free food. Most of America was still in the clutches of the fat-free craze, and my classmate’s views weren’t at all uncommon. Dietary fat was being blamed for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many other impairments of health. But instinctively, I thought that banning fat was a bad idea—I just didn’t have the facts to back up my theory. Now, a decade later, research is proving my hunch—that some types of fat can actually prevent disease and improve health. The key lies in a general understanding of fats, and in knowing which fats to emphasize in your diet.
The Fat Family Tree
The family of fat is very complex, so to make it less confusing, picture it as a family tree. At the top, there are two different families of fat—saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat (butter is one example) is packed with hydrogen atoms, making it solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fat (like olive oil) contains fewer hydrogen atoms, so it is liquid at room temperature. The family of unsaturated fat includes two children: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. In the polyunsaturated fat family, you’ll find omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, and it is the omega-3 family that has been making headlines in the nutrition world.
3 Types of Omega 3s
There are actually three types of fatty acids that are collectively referred to as omega 3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Besides being hard to pronounce, they are extremely important to your health. Omega 3s are “essential” fatty acids, because they are necessary for health and must be included in your diet (because the human body cannot manufacture them on its own). But what exactly are they used for, and what do they do for human health?
Mega Health Benefits
Extensive research indicates that omega-3 fats reduce inflammation, helping to prevent inflammatory diseases like heart disease and arthritis. In addition to warding off inflammation, omega 3s are also essential to the brain, impacting behavior and cognitive function, and are especially necessary during fetal development. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM), omega 3s may also:
- Improve artery health by helping to reduce plaque buildup and blood clots in arteries that lead to the brain.
- Improve cholesterol by lowering triglycerides and elevating HDL (good cholesterol) levels. These benefits come primarily from DHA and EPA. Learn more about fats that fight cholesterol.
- Improve joint health by reducing joint tenderness and stiffness associated with arthritis and osteoarthritis.
- Improve bone health by positively impacting the body’s calcium levels, reducing the incidence of bone loss.
- Improve mental health by helping to insulate nerve cells in the brain, allowing these nerve cells to better communicate with one another. People who are deficient in omega 3s may suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and ADHD.
- Improve skin health by helping to alleviate symptoms related to skin disorders like acne and psoriasis.
- Improve bowel health by reducing inflammation of the bowels, helping alleviate symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Improve lung health by reducing inflammation in diseases like asthma.
- Improve menstrual health by reducing the pain associated with PMS and menstruation.
- Help prevent cancer. Colon, breast, and prostate cancers have all been correlated with low intakes of omega 3s.
Omega 3s might seem overwhelming at first, but once you understand the types and “mega” health benefits that come with them, you’ll be on your way to improving your health.