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Fat always seems to get a bad rap, but fats are a necessary part of your diet and some have major health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids, are essential because your body doesn't make them, so you need to get them through food. They are vital for brain function, growth and development, and help stave off chronic disease. Alpha-linolenic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are two omegas found in different foods, but both are an important part of your diet and health.
ALA versus DHA
You get DHA from cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines and tuna. It also is available in supplement form as fish oil. ALA is from flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin oil, soybeans, soybean oil, chia seeds and walnuts. Your body needs to convert ALA into DHA, but it doesn't do so very efficiently. Healthy young men convert 0 to 4 percent of ALA to DHA and healthy young women convert about 9 percent. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, if you follow a Mediterranean diet of mostly vegetables, fruits, grains and fish, you're more likely to reap the health benefits of both ALA and DHA.
DHA provides you with more health benefits than ALA. DHA lowers fats in your blood, like cholesterol and triglycerides, and prevents plaque buildup in your arteries, which lessens your chance of a heart attack. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, eating two servings of fish per week reduces your risk of a stroke by 50 percent. UMMC also reports that fish lowers apoproteins, markers of diabetes, but ALA does not have the same benefit. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish prevent inflammation and associated diseases such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, a 2003 study published in "Archives of Neurology" showed omega-3 fatty acids and eating fish weekly reduces risk of Alzheimer's disease.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week to reap the health benefits. For adults with heart disease, the AHA advises an additional 1 gram of fish oil supplement a day. For those with high cholesterol and blood pressure, add an extra 2 to 4 grams of fish oil per day. If you are just not into fish, then opt for ALA sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Cook with canola or soybean oil, snack on walnuts or add flaxseeds to salads.
ALA does not contain contaminants, which is an advantage over DHA, since fish and fish oils may be high in mercury and dioxins. Children and pregnant or nursing women shouldn't eat more than 12 ounces of fish per week. These populations should avoid mercury, shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish, which contain the highest levels of mercury. Fish oil also increases your risk for bleeding and may cause intestinal discomfort. Speak with your physician before taking omega-3 supplements.