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Get a Grip on Fatty Acids

An introduction to omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

by Lisa Nelson  |  3337 views  |  0 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard the term "fatty acids." But do you understand what they are and how the right ratio will improve your heart health?

There are numerous types of fatty acids. I am focusing on omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 and omega - fatty acids are both unsaturated fats. To improve cholesterol levels, you want to replace the saturated fats (like those in lard, shortening, ice cream, cheese) in your diet with unsaturated fats. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are also essential fatty acids, which are necessary for cardiovascular health but cannot be synthesized by our bodies -- you can only obtain essential fatty acids through the foods you eat.

What does "omega" mean? You're probably familiar with the phrase "alpha to omega" -- in other words, beginning to end. The "omega" indicates which carbon has the first double bond on the carbon chain when you start counting from the omega end. For omega-3, the first double bond is on the third carbon from the omega end of the carbon chain. I know you wanted to review a little biochemistry today!

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids; they go by the acronyms ALA, EPA, and DHA. If we consume a food containing the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, our body will convert it to EPA and DHA. Studies have shown a link between EPA, DHA, and heart disease. More studies are needed to understand ALA's relationship. Some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are certain oils (canola, soybean, and flaxseed oil, which is a good source of ALA, seeds and nuts (flaxseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds), certain vegetables (avocados, kale, spinach, mustard greens, collards), and fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring).

GLA and AA are omega-6 fatty acids. Linoleic acid is converted to GLA and on into AA by the body. Researchers are finding indications of a link between GLA and EPA, in relation to heart health and reduced blood pressure. High intake of sugars, alcohol, trans fats, and various other factors can inhibit the conversion from linoleic acid to GLA. Some good sources of omega 6 fatty acids are certain oils (sunflower, corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, and flaxseed), seeds and nuts (flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, pine nuts), and meat (chicken, beef).

For optimum heart health, the ratio between omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 should be between 1:1 and 4:1. A practical example of what a 1:1 ratio means, for every three ounces of beef you eat, you would need to eat three ounces of tuna (I do not mean in the same meal!). The ratio for the typical American diet from 11:1 to 30:1. This poor ratio is linked with heart disease, among several other health issues.

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