We'll cut right to the chase: Omega-3 fatty acids are not overhyped. Rather, they're a key component in a healthy diet and come with many science-backed benefits for your heart health, brain health, and longevity. But before you splurge in the supplement aisle, know that omega-3s are found in a number of nutritious foods. In fact, they're one of the many reasons that doctors and health experts recommend that you consume certain types of fatty fish, including salmon and other oily fishes, and other common superfoods including chia seeds and walnuts.
- Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, attending cardiologist and the director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City
If you’re still unsure what exactly omega-3s are and how they're linked to cardiovascular health (especially as you age), rest assured that you’re not alone. To help clear up some of your questions and derive a better understanding of why exactly this particular compound is, we spoke to cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, volunteer medical expert for American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
"Simply put, omega-3s are a kind of polyunsaturated fatty acid that are necessary to maintaining your healthy body function—specifically, in the function of your cell membranes," says Dr. Steinbaum. There are three key forms of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA, which are often found in oily fishes; and ALA, more commonly found in nuts and seeds. "In addition to the role they play in your cell walls, they also serve as a source of energy and help with the maintenance of your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and immune system function."
How are omega-3s linked to heart health?
While omega-3s offer plenty of benefits for gut health, brain health, skincare, and more, cardiologists often tout this nutrient as especially crucial for heart health. “Omega-3 fatty acids are considered an ‘essential’ fat, which means that our body does not make omega-3s on its own. But because we still need them, we must get them from food sources," says Dr. Steinbaum. “Studies have shown that omega-3s can help reduce blood pressure and triglycerides, aka the fat in your blood. Moreover, omega-3s can help increase longevity by fending off certain illnesses. There is evidence to suggest they can reduce your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease."
The best foods sources of omega-3s
Now that we know how much eating omega-3-rich foods boost your cardiovascular system in the long term, we're obviously wondering how much we should be consuming to reap the benefits. “There is no standard recommended guideline for consumption of omega-3s, but it is suggested to eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week,” Dr. Steinbaum says. "These fatty fish can include tuna, sardines, mackerel, trout, herring, or of course, salmon. Other key sources of omega-3s include olive oil, walnuts, avocado, chia seeds, and flax seeds."
You can also try some of these delicious omega-3-packed breakfast recipes, including chia seed pudding and the vegan banana bread featured in this video:
So... Should I consider omega-3 supplements?
Despite the high occurrence of omega-3s in fish and other naturally fatty plant-based foods, Dr. Steinbaum notes that omega-3 is variably absorbed. “As a result, the best way is to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3s is to get your levels checked. If your levels are low, then your doctor may recommend supplements if necessary,” she says, affirming that you should be sure to speak with a physician or dietitian before introducing any new supplements into your routine.
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