The Good, the Bad, and the Power of Omega-3s

 

The Good, The Bad, and the Power of Omega-3s. For years we’ve been told that eating fat will add inches to your waistline, raise cholesterol, and cause a myriad of health problems. But now we know that not all fat is the same. While bad fats can wreck your diet and increase your risk of certain diseases, good fats can protect your brain and heart. In fact, healthy fats—such as omega-3s—are vital to your physical and emotional health.

By understanding the difference between good and bad fats and how to include more healthy fat in your diet, you can improve your mood, boost your energy and well-being, and even lose weight.

What are dietary fats?

Fat is a type of nutrient, and just like protein and carbohydrates, your body needs some fat for energy, to absorb vitamins, and to protect your heart and brain health. And despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the health and waistline wars. “Bad” fats, such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But “good” fats such as unsaturated fats and omega-3s have the opposite effect.

In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.

Dietary fat and cholesterol:

Dietary fat also plays a significant role in your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function correctly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health. As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol.

HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in your blood.

LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind.

The key is to keep LDL levels low and HDL high, which may protect against heart disease and stroke.

Conversely, high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries, and low HDL can be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk.

Heart-Healthy Diet Tip:

  • Eating to Improve Cardiovascular Health. Rather than the amount of cholesterol you eat, the most significant influence on your cholesterol levels is the type of fats you consume. So instead of counting cholesterol, it’s important to focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.

Good fats vs. bad fats. Since fat is an integral part of a healthy diet, rather than adopting a low-fat food, it’s more important to focus on eating more beneficial “good” fats and limiting harmful “bad” fats.

Healthy or “good” fats:

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health.

These fats can help to:

  • Lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Lower bad LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing good HDL.
  • Prevent abnormal heart rhythms.
  • Lower triglycerides associated with heart disease and fight inflammation.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Prevent atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).
  • Adding more of these healthy fats to your diet may also help to make you feel more satisfied after a meal, reducing hunger and thus promoting weight loss.

Good Sources of Healthy Fats:

Monounsaturated fat

  • Olive oil (extra virgin)
  • canola oil
  • peanut oil
  • sesame oils
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
  • Peanut butter

Polyunsaturated fat

  • Sunflower seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • Flaxseed
  • Walnuts
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines) and fish oil
  • Soybean and safflower oil
  • Soymilk
  • Tofu

Unhealthy or “bad” fats:

Trans fat.

Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products, but it’s artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. This is the worst type of fat since it raises not only bad LDL cholesterol but also lowers good HDL levels. Artificial trans fats can also create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions and contributes to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

In the U.S., the FDA is making inroads into outlawing the use of artificial trans-fats in commercially prepared food, but it’s still important to carefully read food labels.

No amount of artificial trans fat is considered safe, so aim to eliminate it from your diet.

Saturated fat.

While not as harmful as trans fat, saturated fat can raise bad LDL cholesterol, and too much can negatively impact heart health, so it’s best consumed in moderation. While there’s no need to cut out all saturated fat from your diet, most nutrition experts recommend limiting it to 10% of your daily calories.

Primary sources of unhealthy fats:

Trans fat
  • Commercially-baked pastries, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, pizza dough
  • Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips)
  • Stick margarine, vegetable shortening
  • Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish)
  • Anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, even if it claims to be “trans fat-free.”
Saturated fat
  • Red meat (beef, lamb, pork)
  • Chicken skin
  • Whole-fat dairy products (milk, cream, cheese)
  • Butter
  • Ice cream
  • Lard
  • Tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil

Refined Carbs and Sugar:

The Diet Saboteurs: Choosing Healthier Carbs Learn more>>

What these studies highlight is that when cutting down on saturated fats in your diet, it’s essential to replace them with the right foods. For example, swapping animal fats for vegetable oils—such as replacing butter with olive oil—can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk for a disease.

However, swapping animal fats for refined carbohydrates-such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a bagel or pastry-won’t have the same benefits. That’s because eating refined carbohydrates or sugary foods can have a similar adverse effect on your cholesterol levels, your risk for heart disease, and your weight.

Limiting your intake of saturated fat can still help improve your health—as long as you take care to replace it with good fat rather than refined carbs. In other words, don’t go no to any fat, go yes to good fat.

The power of omega-3s:

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are especially beneficial to your health. There are different types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA are found in fish and algae and have the most health benefits, while ALA comes from plants and is a less potent form of omega-3, although the body does convert ALA to EPA and DHA at low rates.

Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3s may help to:

  • Prevent and reduce symptoms of depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder
  • Protect against memory loss and dementia
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer
  • Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions
  • Support a healthy pregnancy
  • Battle fatigue, sharpen your memory and balance your mood

The Best Sources of Omega-3s

Fish: the best source of omega-3 (high in EPA and DHA)

  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Trout
  • Tuna
  • Mussels
  • Oysters
  • Halibut

Vegetarian sources of omega-3s:

  • Algae such as seaweed (high in EPA and DHA)
  • Eggs (small amounts of DHA)
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Canola and soybean oil
  • Walnuts
  • Mayonnaise
  • Edamame
  • Beans (refried, kidney, etc.)
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Kale
  • Spinach

How much omega-3s do you need?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people with documented heart disease get about 1 gram of EPA plus DHA per day. For the rest of us, the AHA recommends eating at least two 3.5 oz. (100 g) servings of fish per week.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are highest in omega-3 fatty acids.

If you don’t care for fish or you want to be sure to get your daily omega-3s, you may want to take an omega-3 supplement, widely available over the counter.

Try to include a variety of ALA-rich oils, nuts, seeds, and vegetables in your diet.

What to do about mercury in fish:

Despite the health benefits, nearly all seafood contains traces of pollutants, including the toxic metal mercury. The concentration of pollutants increases in larger fish so avoids eating shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.

Most adults can safely eat 12 oz. (two 6 oz. or 170 g servings) of cooked seafood a week. For women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and children under 12 choose fish lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, or catfish. You can also protect yourself by varying the types of fish that you include in your diet.

Omega-3 supplements

While omega-3s are best obtained through food, there are many omega-3 and fish oil supplements available. Fish oil contains no mercury (mercury binds to the protein, not fat) and meager amounts of other contaminants.

One capsule a day usually supplies about 200 to 400 mg of EPA plus DHA and should be enough for most people.

If you need to lower your triglycerides substantially, your doctor may recommend prescription fish oil, which has been concentrated to contain about 900 mg of EPA plus DHA per capsule.

For strict vegetarians or vegans, as well as obtaining ALA from food sources, look for capsules containing DHA and EPA extracted from algae, the source of omega-3s for fish.

Tips for taking supplements
  • For some, fish oil capsules can be hard to swallow and may leave a fishy aftertaste. Keeping the capsules in the freezer before taking them can help, or you can look for odorless or deodorized capsules.

Choosing healthy oils:

  • Vegetable oils lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and raise HDL or good cholesterol. Oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean contain omega-6, a type of polyunsaturated fat that may help to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation.
  • Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as olive, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil whenever possible.
  • Less processed oils, such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, contain potentially beneficial phytochemicals.
  • When using olive oil, opt for “extra virgin,” which may have additional heart benefits over regular olive oil.

What about tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil?

The food industry likes to tout the benefits of tropical oils, while dietary guidelines shun these oils. Who is right?

These oils can have complex effects on blood cholesterol levels—for example, raising “bad” LDL cholesterol but also raising “good” HDL cholesterol, for example-while their effects on other markers for heart disease are not yet precisely known.

For now, it’s safer to stick to vegetable oils since there’s stronger evidence that these oils are heart healthy.

If you occasionally want to eat something that contains coconut or palm oil, enjoy it as a treat—it’s better than eating something with trans fat, which these tropical oils often replace.

Tips for adding more healthy fats to your diet:

  • Instead of obsessively counting fat grams, aim for a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, and beans, with two or more weekly servings of fatty fish, moderate amounts of dairy, small amounts of red meat, and only occasional fried or processed meals.
  • It can mean replacing fried chicken with grilled chicken, swapping out some of the red meat you eat with other sources of protein such as fish, chicken, or beans, or using olive oil rather than butter. Following a Mediterranean diet can also help ensure you’re getting enough good fats in your diet and limiting the bad ones.
  • Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Limiting commercially-baked goods and fast food can go a long way.
  • Limit your intake of saturated fats by replacing some of the red meat you eat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish, and switching from whole milk dairy to lower fat versions. But don’t make the mistake of replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates and sugary foods.
  • Eat omega-3 fats every day. Include a variety of fish sources as well as plant sources such as walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.
  • Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try canola oil.
  • Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded with heart- and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling meal.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you have anything that you’d like to share or any opinions on any of the content on my site, please do speak up. I look forward to your comments, questions and the sharing of ideas.

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Resources and references:

General information on dietary fats

Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart – Information on the different kinds of fats and their effect on cholesterol (Harvard University, School of Public Health)

Saturated Fats – Outlines how saturated fats can raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. (American Heart Association)

Fats – Outlines the differences between healthy fats and unhealthy fats, including why saturated fat should be limited for people with diabetes. (American Diabetes Association)

Fats and cholesterol

Fats and Cholesterol – Information on the different kinds of fats and their effect on cholesterol (Harvard University, School of Public Health)

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids – Comprehensive article on omega-3 fatty acids and the role they may play in preventing several diseases and conditions. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

Fats: dietary guidelines

Dietary Guidelines for Americans – Summary of dietary guidelines, including recommended saturated fat limits. (USDA)

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34 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Power of Omega-3s

  1. I am a very health-conscious person. I learned a lot from your article especially what kind of foods to avoid the bad effects of omega 3.

    1. Hi Albeneth, I’m glad to hear that your a health conscious person. You may have misworded your comments. Omega-3s have good effects on a persons health not bad effects. Thanks for sharing, Robert

  2. I always knew that omega 3 is good for the heart. I never thought it could help with depression, bipolar and ADHD. I’m learning a lot, thanks for this very informative article.

  3. What about those orange coloured omega-3 eggs? Should we replace our regular eggs with those? My family is 3 adults, and we normally eat about 12 eggs a week. How much omega-3 will that add to our diet?

    1. Hi BobQ, without trying to be too technical I’ll try to explain. There are three primary omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, or ALA, EPA and DHA. The first type is found in plants, and the latter two are found in fish. The amount and type of omega-3 fatty acids found in eggs varies depending on the diet the hens are fed. Omega-3 fortified eggs contains roughly 160 milligrams of omega-3 per egg in the form ALA, while they contain 225 milligrams of combined DHA and AHA omega-3 fatty acids per egg. The Institute of Medicine recommends 0.6 to 1.2 grams of ALA per day. The American Dietetic Association recommends 500 milligrams of EPA plus DHA per day. Bottom line: Keep in mind that the amount of omega-3s in fortified eggs is low compared to fatty fish. A 3-ounce serving of wild Atlantic cooked salmon contains a combined total of 1,564 milligrams of EPA and DHA, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. I hope this information helps and thanks for sharing, Robert

  4. I always see Trans Fat and Saturated Fats on the nutritional information. I know that they are bad fats, but that’s all. Thanks for the article, enlightening and it answered my question.

  5. Knowing the right kind of fats to consume is really important to stay healthy. Thank you for listing down the best sources of fatty acids!

  6. This article is very informative. Now I know the unhealthy foods I’m eating. Let’s start to eat right and be healthy.

  7. I love fishes rich in omega-3. However if I eat a large amount of salmon sashimi I tend to feel dizzy. Is it because I ate a lot and it’s causing me high blood pressure? I hope you can answer me with this question if in case you know the answer.

    1. Hi Carrie, eating raw fish is associated with a higher risk of parasitic infections and food poisoning. However, you can minimize the risk by following a few simple guidelines. For starters, always buy your fish from reputable suppliers. Additionally, raw fish should be previously frozen, as freezing it at -4°F (-20°C) for a week should kill all parasites. Store thawed fish on ice in the fridge and eat it within a couple of days. Following these guidelines, you can enjoy raw fish both at home and in restaurants at minimal risk to your health. I’m sorry but I have never heard of your particular issue associated with eating fish. You may have an allergy to fish. I would talk with your doctor to get tested for having an allergy to fish. I hope this helps and thanks for sharing, Robert

  8. Very helpful article. I will try to include Omega 3 on my diet from now on. Thanks for this great article! More power to your blog!

  9. Very interesting, I guess I get my omega porcentaje from eating salmon, catfish and avocados. However I’ve noticed i cant abuse of those cause i have hormonal skin problems and even taking E vitamin phills can make worst my skin problems.

    1. Hi Sidney, my advice is to consult with your doctor before making any major diet changes. If you doctor agrees I would then consult with a dietitian to see what they recommend. Thanks for sharing, Robert

  10. Omega 3 is vital to children growth. In fact in our family, everyone was fed a table spoon everyday when he/she was a little kid. We hated it back then, but I do understand the benefits now. I would also say, not all fats are bad.

  11. This is why I love TUNA. It is my default viand with my rice if things gets rough in particular out here. Its healthy too.

  12. So, I am confused. I always read that coconut oil is healthy. But here it is listed as a major source of saturated fat.

    1. Hi Kevin, While there’s no need to cut out all saturated fat from your diet, most nutrition experts recommend limiting it to 10% of your daily calories. If you occasionally want to eat something that contains coconut or palm oil, enjoy it as a treat—it’s better than eating something with trans fat, which these tropical oils often replace. I hope this explains it for you. Thanks for joining in, Robert

  13. awesome article i loved the list of examples and sources to get the nutrients. i did not know omega 3 could also help with depression . that was very useful to me

  14. It is good for one to reduce the amount of “bad” fats or LDL cholesterol by reducing the intake of pastries, snacks and fried foods. This article is a wake up call to those that are hooked on junk food. It is bad for the health. Substitute these with Soymilk, nuts and fish. A word is enough for the wise.

  15. My Italian great-grandma, without knowing it, was an adept of what they now call the Mediterranean Diet – lots of seafood, olive oil and vegetables. She lived a healthy and active life up until her 90’s. I am not even 40 and have always watched my fat intake, following the food pyramid. Result: overweight with other health problems associated. Who was the villain then, if not fat? Our current lifestyle is making us sick. Maybe going back to traditional knowledge can help us to become a lot healthier.

    1. Hi Victoria, sorry to hear that you’re overweight with associated health problems. You probably already have but my advice would be to talk with your doctor and a dietitian. Maybe get a second opinion. If your doctor says that you are healthy enough maybe try the Mediterranean diet. There’s a lot to be said about our current lifestyles making us sick and for going back to a more traditional lifestyle. Thanks for sharing, Robert

      1. Hi Robert! In fact I have gone to a few dietitians already, but unfortunately all of them were too attached to old, preconceived ideas, that never worked for me. I recently got a recommendation for another one, and that’s the next step I’m going to take. For the time being, I’m going to be following your posts, they make me feel motivated about being able to change my lifestyle.

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