Omega-3 fatty acids may not sound appealing, but these quintessential anti-trans fats promote better heart health and can save our lives. That’s excellent news since it’s estimated that 45 percent of African Americans suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease. With the help of Riska Platt, RN, the American Heart Association’s (AHA) nutritional spokesperson, RH provides the must-know answers and how they improve your health.

What are omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a combination of several acids including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Both are found in high volumes in cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines. “Fish is not only an excellent source for omega-3s, it’s a great source of protein too,” Platt says. “And it doesn’t have as much saturated fat as other meats do.” But Platt emphasizes that how you prepare the fish is key. “Fried fish is not what we have in mind.”  

How do they protect the heart?

Although medical experts and scientists are not quite sure why these fats are heart healthy, past studies have shown that EPA and DHA lower triglyceride levels (the level of fat in your blood), prevent hardening of the arteries and lower blood pressure slightly, as well as reduce the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms and strokes in people with heart disease. They also thin the blood to prevent clots.

Are there other health benefits?

It is believed that omega-3s help prevent cancer cell growth, lessen fatigue and depression and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Studies are also being done to find a link between DHA and neurological functions, such as brain and eye development and as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Lots of reports warn us about dangerous mercury levels in fish. Should we be concerned?

The FDA advises the following:

  • Children and pregnant women should avoid eating those fish with the potential for the highest level of mercury contamination, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.
  • You can reduce some levels of mercury by removing the skin and surface fat from these fish before cooking.

But don’t give up on fish, pleads Platt. “The AHA believes that the benefits outweigh the risks,” she says.

But what if you don’t like fish?

Some plant forms contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which becomes an omega-3 once the body digests it. ALA can be found in flaxseeds, tofu, walnuts, soybeans, canola, walnuts and certain cooking oils. “These types may be inefficient, however, so if at possible, we recommend that you eat the fish,” Platt suggests.

How much omega-3s should I consume?

The AHA has issued their own guidelines:
  • Patients without documented coronary heart disease (CHD) should eat a variety of fish (preferably fatty) at least twice a week and that include oils and foods rich in ALA.
  • Patients with documented CHD should consume about 1 gram of EPA and DHA per day, preferably from fatty fish. Also, patients should consult with their physician about taking EPA and DHA in capsule form.
  • Patients who need to lower triglyceride levels should consume 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA daily, in capsule form, under a physician’s care.

What should I look for in a supplement?

Supplements are a good way to get omega-3s in your diet if you don’t eat your recommended value. “These supplements have gotten better over time—just make sure your supplements have both DHA and EPA,” advises Platt. As with other supplements, however, you cannot rely on pills alone.

Want to learn about more ways to help your heart? Read RH’s web exclusive “Five Heart-Healthy Resolutions for 2008.”