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Omega 3 and heart health

  • We often hear about omega 3, but what is it exactly?
  • How can omega 3 benefit your heart health?
  • Read on to find out more…

What is omega 3?

Omega 3 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats that we require to stay healthy – specifically for our heart health.

There are different types of omega 3s, which can be found in different foods.

  • ALA (alpha linolenic acid) – ALA cannot be made by our body, so we need to get it from the foods we eat. ALA can be found in a variety of plant products, such as nuts, seeds (especially flaxseed and chia seeds), soybeans and green leafy vegetables.
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – Our bodies can make some of these fats from the ALA found in the food we eat, but only a small amount, so it’s good to eat foods that contain these two acids. EPA and DHA are commonly found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines), nuts, and supplements. 

Omega 3 and heart health

Omega 3 is often referred to as “healthy” or “good fats”. Those from countries such as Greenland and Japan, as well as Mediterranean countries, often demonstrate lower risk of heart disease due to diets rich in omega 3’s when compared to those in other western countries who typically don’t consume as much in the diet.

There has been a lot of research into omega 3 fats, particularly oily fish, and how they can improve heart health and consequently reduce the risk of heart disease. It has been found that the omega 3 fats EPA and DHA can help protect the heart and blood vessels from disease, helping to:

  • Lower triglycerides
  • Increase HDL-cholesterol (good cholesterol)
  • Improve circulation
  • Prevent blood clots
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Keep heart rhythm steady 

Omega 3 and benefits to other aspects of health

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

There is good evidence that omega 3 fats can improve symptoms of arthritis. Benefits include reduced joint swelling and pain, shorter duration of morning stiffness and reduced need for anti-inflammatory drugs to control symptoms.

Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive function

Because DHA is an essential component of cellular membranes in the brain, it is believed that omega 3 might help maintain and support brain function and therefore result in a reduction in cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, evidence on this has been mixed so more research needs to be done.

What if I don’t like fish?

It is recommended that you try to get your nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements. However, if you don’t eat fish, a fish oil supplement containing 500 mg of EPA and DHA combined, with lower levels of vitamin A (when pregnant or breastfeeding avoid vitamin A altogether), is recommended. You should consult with your GP first, as they can advise specific recommendations, especially if you are taking a blood thinning medicine. The omega 3 supplement can either be from a marine fish source or, if you are vegetarian and fish is off the table, you can also get an algae-based supplement.

Some foods are also fortified with omega 3, such as eggs, milks, bread, yogurt and some fat spreads. So, if your diet doesn’t include fish, you just need to be mindful and discover different sources. Be sure to check the labels for the amount and kind of omega 3; its EPA and DHA that are most important for our heart health.

Top tips to include omega 3 in your diet

  • Try different methods of cooking – sometimes you may think you don’t like a certain food, but cooking it in a different way may change the texture, taste or flavour, so get creative!
  • Forget the misconception that cooking fish for dinner takes a long time. A popular option is to buy fish already prepared in a bag, seasoned with herbs and spices, so all you have to do is put it in the oven and prepare the side to accompany it.
  • Ensure you are consistent when including omega 3 in your diet – it won’t provide much of a benefit if you have adequate omega 3 for one week but then forget for the next two months.
  • It is recommended we consume two portions of oily fish per week to get adequate amounts of omega 3 in the diet. Try mixing and matching for variety.

Our heart health is important, so making sure we have adequate omega 3 consumption can reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. Make sure you and your family are including them in your diets to reap the health benefits they provide.