Omega-3 Fats Pack a Powerful Punch

Learn how omega-3 fats protect your heart

Salmon on grill

Contributor: Melissa Ohlson, MS, RD, LD, Department of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation

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If you compare fighting heart disease to a boxing match, then omega-3 fats are the heavyweight champ. Few nutrients come close to the one-two punch of these long-chain polyunsaturated fats, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Extensive studies have shown that omega-3 fats promote heart health by reducing risks of:

  • sudden cardiac death
  • myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • coronary heart disease
  • atrial fibrillation (heart rhythm disorders)
  • death from heart failure

Tackling stubborn triglycerides

What’s more, when taken in recommended doses, omega-3 EPA and DHA supplements can reduce elevated triglycerides by up to 40 percent. (Levels of this blood lipid, or fat, above 150 mg/dL increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.)

Just how omega-3 fats confer cardiovascular benefits isn’t clear, but it is probably their impact on arterial cell membranes. EPA and DHA help smooth the arterial lining and block inflammation, which both lessen the likelihood of platelet and plaque buildup. They also relax the blood vessels, promoting healthy circulation and lowering blood pressure.

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Fish itself is most helpful

The best way to raise your blood levels of EPA and DHA is to consume fish regularly. Eating two meals that include fatty fish per week is a good guideline, especially for those with elevated triglycerides. 

Fish containing the highest concentration of omega-3 include:

  • salmon
  • herring
  • sardines
  • anchovies
  • mackerel
  • sea bass

You should also incorporate plants containing omega-3 into your diet daily. These include:

  • flax seeds
  • canola oil
  • walnuts
  • soy
  • algal oil (algae-based dietary supplements) 

Although plant sources pack a less potent punch than fish sources of omega-3, incorporating those foods into your diet will provide you with other heart-healthy nutrients too.

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If you have high triglycerides and don’t consume fish regularly, talk to your doctor about fish oil supplements. When purchasing a supplement, look for the amount of EPA plus DHA in the product; don’t just look at the total fish oil in a capsule. Choose the supplement that provides the greatest amount of EPA plus DHA per serving. In most cases, you want to take the fewest number of pills to achieve your end goal.

When to use caution

Many people are concerned about potential contaminants, such as methylmercury, lurking in fish. However, most healthcare professionals agree that the benefits of the omega-3 in fish far outweigh the risks of contaminants. 

However, pregnant or nursing women and young children should avoid the following fish, known to be high in methylmercury: 

  • tilefish
  • king mackerel
  • swordfish 
  • shark 

Because contaminants are found in the flesh of fish and not the oils, fish oil supplements contain negligible amounts and are safe.

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