Do you know your good fats from your bad fats?

It is often said that we consume too much fat, but in many parts of the world people don’t eat enough good fat. Consuming polyunsaturated fatty acids, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, is important for good health. On the other hand, diets high in certain fats have been shown to raise cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Experts recommend the consumption of polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, for good heart health. Studies support a positive association between the polyunsaturated omega-3 fats often found in fish (DHA and EPA) and cardiovascular health. It is important to remember that in our efforts to avoid limit total fat  and trans fats, we must be careful not to avoid the "good" unsaturated (poly and mono) fats.

Where to find Healthy or ‘good’ fats

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are found primarily in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, flaxseed and canola oils. DHA and EPA, two long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, are found primarily in oily or fatty fish and algal oils

Understanding the role that each Omega-3 plays

Today, more and more food products highlight their omega-3 content, but not all omega-3s are created equal. There are three major omega-3 fatty acids: DHA, EPA and ALA. Each one plays a distinct role in the body.

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

What is it?

DHA is the most abundant long chain omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and the retina of the eye. It is an important structural component of the nerve cells in the brain and it is a key component of the heart. DHA is naturally found in breast milk but varies depending on the amount of DHA mum consumes. Experts recommended women consume at least 200 mg DHA daily during pregnancy and nursing.

Where is it found?

DHA can be obtained from the oils in certain marine algae, fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon and mackerel, and organ meats. DHA from algae is the only vegetarian oil that supplies preformed DHA. It is available in certain fortified foods and  dietary supplements.

The body can also synthesize DHA from shorter chain omega-3 precursors such as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid); however, this conversion process is slow and inefficient. The most reliable way to ensure that the body gets DHA is to consume preformed DHA in your diet.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

What is it?

EPA is also a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid important for human health. However, unlike DHA, EPA is not stored in significant levels in the brain or retina, and is not considered a significant structural part of the body.

Where is it found?

EPA, along with DHA, is found in fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon and mackerel.

Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALNA)

What is it?

ALA is a shorter-chain omega-3 fatty acid that serves as a source of energy and as a precursor for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Although researchers used to believe that a significant amount of ALA could be converted to EPA and DHA, we now know that in humans very little ALA is converted to EPA and even less is converted to DHA. ALA to DHA conversion occurs at a rate of less than 0.5% and varies dependent upon age, health status, gender, and background diet.   ALA likely only provides 7 mg of DHA/day toward the recommended 250 mg DHA+EPA/day for adults living in the EU.

What does it do?

The known roles of ALA are to serve as a source of energy for the body and to serve as a building block for the longer chain omega-three fatty acids DHA and EPA; however, new research indicates that ALA may not be converted efficiently to these important fatty acids. There are no known independent benefits of ALA on brain or retinal development and there is insufficient data to support a direct role of ALA in promoting cardiovascular health.

Where is it found?

Sources of ALNA include flaxseeds, walnuts, soynuts and soybean oil.