Omega 3s: Eating Fish Is Healthy for Your Heart
Fish may well be one of our best friends when it comes to staying heart healthy. Why? Because eating a diet rich in fish is linked to lowering our risk of heart attacks and stroke, and in particular, sudden cardiac death. So much so that the American Heart Association recommends we eat at least one to two servings of fish every week.
This is because fish have very low amounts of saturated fat and are high in unsaturated fatty acids (tilapia and catfish are exceptions — they have high levels of unhealthy saturated fat). And while it may sound counterintuitive, fatty fish are the healthiest when it comes to your heart, because they are high in omega-3 — the most beneficial fatty acid nutrient for cardiovascular health. Fatty fish include sardines, mackerel, herring, lake trout, tuna and salmon.
What Exactly Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Scientifically put, omega-3s are essential fatty acids found in seafood and plant-based foods and oils, made up of chains of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms that play vital roles in many processes in the body — most importantly heart health, brain function and inflammation.
They’re called essential because our body cannot make them, so we need to get them through our diet or as a supplement, and if we don’t and are omega-3 deficient, it can impact everything from heart disease and depression to arthritis and even cancer.
There are 11 types of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and the three most important ones—because they relate to heart and brain health—are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found mostly in plants, while EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are from animal products.
What Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Do for Our Heart’s Health?
Research has shown omega-3 fatty acids to have several benefits for our heart that lead to an overall reduced risk of heart disease and stroke by:
- Reducing triglycerides — fat deposits in our arteries that increase our risk of heart attack, other heart issues, and strokes.
- Slowing down the rate of plaque growth in our arteries — fat, cholesterol and calcium deposits can accumulate, limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood around your body, and can cause blockages leading to heart disease and heart attacks.
- Acting as an anti-inflammatory — inflammation throughout the body can damage blood vessels.
- Reducing blood pressure — studies have shown that people who are given higher doses of omega-3s have reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure, which when high can both lead to heart disease and heart attacks. Systolic is the pressure created in your arteries when your heart muscle contracts, and diastolic is the pressure in your arteries in between heart beats.
- Decreasing our risk of arrhythmia — an irregular heart beat that can increase the risk of heart issues and stroke.
- Improving endothelial cell function — while more clinical trials are needed, omega-3s have been shown to help these ‘lifeline’ cells that line all of our blood vessels throughout the entire vascular system (from the heart to the tiniest capillary), and control the exchange of materials, including white blood cells, from the blood stream to surrounding tissues. They help regulate tissue growth and repair, and help our vascular system perform better to benefit cardiovascular disease.
Getting Your Omega-3s
Studies show incorporating fish into your diet is the most favorable way to increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acid. The jury is still out on taking fish oil supplements when it comes to heart health.
Non-Fish Omega-3 Food Options
You can get omega-3s through other sources, but they’re not supported by as much evidence of heart benefits as eating fish. The following foods do contain some omega-3 fatty acid:
- Canola oil
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseed oil
- Soybean oil
Work with your primary care physician to determine if you need more omega-3 fatty acids. They can prescribe tests like an OmegaCheck to see if you’re getting enough healthy fats in your diet and offer suggestions on how to improve your diet.