The fat-free craze of the 1980s and 1990s has fizzled due to a mountain of evidence showing certain fats are actually a necessary component of a healthy diet. Eliminating all fat from the diet is a poor dietary decision, whether for weight loss or other health reasons. While most animal fats should be avoided whenever possible, many plant-based fats have been found to have positive effects on health, when consumed in moderation.
A class of essential fatty acids (EFAs) termed omega-3s are essential for optimal bodily function. They've been found to play a role in lowering blood pressure, fighting inflammation, reducing LDL, or "bad" cholesterol and promoting improved brain health and function of the central nervous system in general. Among the most common ways to add more of these "good fats" to our diet is to consume flaxseed oil or fish oil.
About Flaxseed Oil
The seeds of the flax plant are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as fiber and lignans, which have antioxidant and phytoestrogen properties. These seeds have been eaten for thousands of years for their nutritional benefits and flaxseed oil is often produced by cold-pressing the whole seeds to extract the pure oil. Flaxseed oil is the clear choice for vegans and vegetarians and there's also a fair argument to be made that it's more sustainable than fish oil. You can buy flaxseed oil in liquid form (which can be added to smoothies or drizzled over vegetables) as well as in softgel form to make taking it easier.
Other alternatives to consumining oild produced from fish include algae-based omega-3 supplements, which are also a hot item in the healthy fat category. Walnuts are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
About Fish Oil
There's good reason to believe seafood-based omega-3 supplements may confer greater benefits as their fat profile more closely resembles that found in humans. Fish oil is produced by pressing the fish and is a direct source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are two important essential fatty acids. Manufacturers either press the fish when it's cold or heated. Fatty fish like sardines, mackerel and salmon are the sources most commonly used as well as herring and krill. Each has unique advantages and drawbacks regarding availability, sustainability and contamination.
Why We Need Omega-3s
The evidence is conflicting as to the comparative benefits of fish oil and flaxseed oil and the ideal daily dosage. This may be, in part, due to genetic differences in how our bodies utilize these essential fats. However, the health benefits are, in general, clearly established and the risks rather low. Omega-3 fatty acids form the backbone of many natural anti-inflammatory molecules used by the body's immune system. Thus, they're typically used to benefit chronic pain and inflammation, autoimmune diseases, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases with an inflammatory component. They're also used to make the protective sheath around our nerves and may benefit brain and cognitive function.
Omega-3 supplementation has some of the best supporting research and is an essential component of a basic supplement program, along with a multivitamin and vitamin D. When shopping for these, be sure to compare the amount of omega-3 per capsule. To achieve the optimal dosage, it's often cheaper in the long-run to buy a more concentrated (and often more expensive) formula. Look for the purest form available and research the manufacturer to understand where the supplement comes from. Omega-3 supplements should be used with caution in those with bleeding disorders or who are taking anti-coagulant medications.
It's always good to consult with a qualified practitioner as to the best mix and dosage for one's individual needs to get the most out of adding more omega-3s to the diet.
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