Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids for health. Why? Quite simply, these fats may help reduce inflammation.
Your body needs fat for good health, but the type of fat is what really matters here. Registered dietitian, Mira Ilic, RD, LD, shares that the ones to strive for are typically polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, fluid at room temperature and mostly plant-based, rather than solid saturated fats like butter.
Within the polyunsaturated fats are the unique and all-important omega-3 fatty acids. They are essential for health, but your body cannot manufacture them — they need to be part of your diet.
Find out how incorporating omega-3s into your diet can also help with arthritis.
Why are omega-3s good for you?
There are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids — omega-3s and omega-6s. “Omega-3s are important for brain development in fetuses and infants. Omega-3s may also help with cognition as we age,” says Ilic.
“Omega-6s tend to be pro-inflammatory,” says Ilic. As we know, inflammation is at the heart of many diseases, like arthritis. We need some omega-6s, but they must be balanced with omega-3s, which are anti-inflammatory. “The American diet has 10 or more times omega-6s than omega-3s, so it’s important to understand the right balance,” she says.
How omega-3s help arthritis
Because omega-3s fight inflammation, their role in managing rheumatoid arthritis has been highly studied. Studies of people taking fish oil supplements or eating more fatty fish have found that they have less morning stiffness, joint stiffness and pain, and less need for medication.
Other recent studies detail how incorporating a balance of omega-3s and omega-6s can help with different types of pain. It’s been found that a diet high in omega-6s was a risk factor for inflammatory pain (from arthritis, for example) and neuropathic pain (from conditions like diabetes). “So, lowering omega-6s and increasing omega-3s may reduce both types of pain,” adds Ilic.
Should I take omega-3 supplements?
Before you head to your local grocery store or pharmacy to pick up a bottle of supplements, think about changing your diet first.
There are three types of omega-3s. The two most important ones to consider are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), available only from marine sources, such as cold-water fatty fish and algae (a good choice for vegetarians). The third is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which comes from plants like flaxseed, walnuts and vegetable oils.
“A great way to get the suggested two to three servings of fatty fish each week is to follow the Mediterranean diet,” recommends Ilic. It’s been linked to life longevity, better health and fewer chronic illnesses. It focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood.
If you’re not versed in cooking seafood, Ilic has a tried and true, fast recipe for you: On a piece of parchment paper, place a fish filet over some julienned vegetables, topped with a dab of Dijon mustard, a sprig of dill and a bit of black pepper. Fold it up to make an envelope and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Cut open the envelope with scissors to safely let the steam escape. “It’s a no-fail recipe that looks like a fancy restaurant-style dish,” she says.
Here are some smart omega-3-rich fish to think about adding to your weekly dinner menu:
- Atlantic mackerel.
- Light tuna.
Avoid large predatory fish whose mercury levels tend to be high — like albacore tuna, king mackerel, shark and swordfish.
Supplements should only be taken with the guidance of a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or registered dietitian, who can help you find the right dosage and avoid negative interactions with certain drugs you might be taking, including blood thinners.
“Studies done on supplements sometimes show they are not helpful, so it could be other components in fatty fish that contribute to health,” says Ilic.