Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, killing about a million people every year. Luckily it’s also one of the most preventable health problems Americans face. This American Heart Month, research is highlighting a simple way to improve your risk profile—consuming a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
Derived from fish and some plant foods, omega-3 fats are an important family of polyunsaturated fats that have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which come mainly from fish, are the key fats linked to better heart health.
Researchers conducting a recent meta-analysis, or data review, offer the strongest evidence to date on the power of this dynamic fat duo to protect the heart, even in people known to already be at high risk. The research relied on randomized control trials, the gold standard of research, where a group of patients receiving an intervention is compared with another one group that doesn’t. Collectively these trials showed that intake of EPAand DHA from foods and supplements was associated with a 6 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease—heart attack, stroke, coronary death and angina.
When researchers looked specifically at subjects’ individual blood fats, or lipids, they found the association was particularly important to patients with high levels of triglycerides (150 mg/dL or greater) and “bad” LDL cholesterol (130 mg/dL or greater), significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease. About a quarter of Americans have elevated triglycerides, while about 27 percent have high LDL cholesterol.
The researchers also looked at prospective cohort studies, trials that involve following a group of similar people over time to determine how risk factors and certain behaviors affect rates of a particular outcome. The result: A high intake of omega-3 fatty acids was associated with an 18 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease.
Regular exercise and eating a plant-based diet low in saturated fat are fundamental to lowering your risk of heart disease. But the studies strongly suggest that getting sufficient omega-3 fatty acids also makes a significant difference.
Unfortunately the typical Western diet is awash with omega-6 fats, another essential type of fat. Found in meat, eggs and the vegetable oils in processed foods, omega-6s crowd out omega-3s by their abundance in the food supply.
To right the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats, you can eat fish or other seafood one to two times per week, particularly fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, which are richer in EPA and DHA.
If fish is unavailable or you are not a fan, taking a supplement is a good idea. Look for one that contains 1000 grams of DHA and EPA combined (be sure this is shown on the back label) with a minimum of other fat.
Capsules can sometimes cause gas, bloating, and fishy burps. Taking them with meals or at bedtime can reduce these problems, however. Or look for enteric-coated supplements, which release the oil further down the digestive tract.
Wondering whether you’re getting a healthful ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in your diet? Consider the Cleveland HeartLab’s OmegaCheck™ test, which measures the balance of fats in your diet with a simple blood test. Together these steps can put you on a firmer path to better heart health, raising the odds that you can avoid a life-changing cardiovascular event.