What is the role of omega 3 fatty acids? They are abundant in fatty fish, like salmon. Research shows that eating fish is critical to heart health.

Here’s what the science says: A diet that includes fatty fish (fish with more than 5% fat) has long been touted to support heart health. Population-based studies have found that people who regularly eat fatty fish have a lower risk of heart disease compared with those who don’t eat fish.

While these were observational findings, when scientists looked closer, they found that the health benefit from fatty fish appears to be high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The Role of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

“The science linking fatty fish and heart health continues to evolve, but the evidence still points to omega-3s as a way to further protect against heart attacks and strokes,” says Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The three types of Omega 3s

Omega-3s are essential fats, meaning the body can’t make them and needs to get them from food. There are three main types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alphalinolenic acid (ALA).

EPA and DHA are found in seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, pollock, and cod. ALA is found mainly in nuts and seeds like flaxseed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts, and in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. “Your body can use ALA to make EPA and DHA, but the conversion is modest,” says Rimm.

While all three omega-3s benefit the heart, EPA and DHA found in fatty fish have a more direct effect than ALA. Still, experts recommend that both fish and plant omega-3s be part of a healthy diet.

Why are omega-3s so helpful? They reduce triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood) and increase “good” HDL cholesterol. Omega-3s slow plaque buildup in arteries that can cause blood clots and trigger heart attacks and strokes. They help to ease inflammation and lower blood pressure. It’s probably no surprise that fatty fish is a staple in most science-backed heart-healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

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