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Omega-3s

02/19/07 12:00AM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST) As we consider ways to boost our mid-winter nutrition, commentator Rachel Johnson reminds us that Omega Three oils provide powerful protection for the heart.

(JOHNSON) As someone with a family history of heart problems, I struggle with far-from-perfect cholesterol numbers. I once ate oats every day for three months in an attempt to nudge my lipid values into healthier ranges; it worked, but sadly not enough. Lately, I'm eating more fish.

Harvard scientists recently analyzed two decades of research and concluded that one to two servings of fish per week reduced the risk of heart disease death by thirty-six percent and overall deaths by seventeen percent. This is especially true of salmon, tuna and other fish rich in the fatty acids known as omega-3s. The data were so compelling, the authors claimed that the health benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants in fish, such as methyl mercury or PCBs.

That said, women who are nursing, pregnant or planning to become pregnant, along with children younger than twelve, should avoid fish with higher mercury levels, such as swordfish.

Ever since my grad-student days I've been intrigued by the story of pioneering epidemiologists who sought to learn why heart disease was practically unheard of in Greenland's Inuit people - despite their diet of high-fat, high-cholesterol whale and seal meat. The scientists discovered that two omega-3 fatty acids predominant in fish - eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexanoic acid or DHA for short - were wide-spread in the Inuit blood and were likely protecting their hearts.

How? Well, when it comes to fats, we are what we eat. Our cell membranes reflect the fat content of our diet. When we eat plenty of omega-3s, our membranes - including those of the heart and blood vessels - are more elastic. That's how fish stay flexible in icy waters. Blood moves through the body more easily, reducing the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots.

All this can help prevent hardened arteries and stroke, and lowers the risk of an irregular heart rate. Lastly, EPA fights inflammation, a known disease risk factor. Inflammation is the body's normal response to injury, but chronic inflammation seems to play a role in causing hardened arteries and other heart problems.

So I'm doing my darnedest to eat more omega-3s. I aim to serve a fatty fish like salmon twice a week, and check-out the seafood dishes first in restaurants. I sprinkle walnuts on my salads and make dressings with canola oil.

But, as ever, moderation is key. Very high intakes of fish-based omega-3s can raise the risk of excessive bleeding. And, like any fat source, omega-3s are still calorie-rich. So focus on substituting - instead of adding - omega-3s for other fats you eat. After all, the most important thing you can do for your heart is to be at a healthy weight. Without that, the pursuit of heart healthy foods like omega-3 fatty acids could be just another fishing expedition.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine.

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