Are You Aware of The Many Health Benefits of Fatty Acid Foods?

Omega-3 fatty acids are called “essential” for a reason. These essential omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to support the health of many key body functions including cardiovascular, immune, brain and more. A 2018 cohort study featured in the British Medical Journal showed that higher cumulative levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with a higher likelihood of healthy aging. (1) The researchers concluded, “These findings support guidelines for increased dietary consumption of n-3PUFAs in older adults.”

older woman with younger child, reading in living room

According to a study, omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a higher likelihood of healthy aging.

And it’s not just older adults who benefit from foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are many. (2)

Health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Reduced cancer risk
  • Enhanced infant health and neurodevelopment
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Enhanced eye health
  • Improved joint function

What are fatty acids?

There are three key omega-3 essential fats: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha linolenic acid (ALA). While these fatty acids are essential to health, the body cannot synthesize these healthy fats so they must come from diet or dietary supplements. That’s why fatty acid foods are so important.

Unsaturated fatty acids

Unsaturated fats found in foods are mostly liquid and considered healthier than other fats. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are solid fats primarily from animal sources. The general rule is that a diet high in saturated fats is not as health-promoting. Exceptions to that rule are the saturated fats from coconut oil, which contains medium-chain triglycerides that can benefit health. (3)

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids

So what foods contain these essential omega-3 fatty acids? Following is a list of fatty acid foods to focus on including seafood, seeds, nuts, and legumes.

Fish first

Fish tops the list of foods high in essential fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends that people eat at least two servings of fish each week. (4) A serving is 3.5 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) cooked or ¾ cup flaked fish.

Fatty fish and fish oil are rich sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Fish that have the most omega-3s include fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, seabass, sardines, herring, tuna, and trout. While oysters and shrimp have less omega-3s than fish, they are still great sources of these essential fatty acids. Many studies have shown that eating seafood and can help reduce the risk of many illnesses, in particular, heart disease. (5)

Try some seeds

Plant foods like seeds, nuts, and beans are great sources of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. This includes flax, chia, and hemp seeds. For example, flaxseeds have been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. (6) Seeds are essential fatty acid foods that also contain fiber and other important nutrients.

walnuts on a table

Plant foods like nuts are a great source of the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. Walnuts have been shown to improve gut microbiome, enhance immunity, and improve cardiovascular & mental health.

The health benefits of nuts

Many different types of nuts have health-promoting compounds. Walnuts, in particular, have been shown to support health on many levels because of the ALA content. A 2018 randomized study of healthy men and women that was published in The Journal of Nutrition found that walnut consumption positively influenced the gut microbiome. (7) Because walnuts also contain potent polyphenols, minerals, melatonin, and vitamin E, they can help enhance immunity, and improve cardiovascular & mental health. (8) According to a 2016 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrients, walnut consumption was associated with improved mood in young adults. (9)

Beans, the magical fruit

Beans—kidney, black, pinto, soy, etc.—also contain ALA. These beans, aka legumes, are also a great source of plant-based protein and contain other beneficial nutrients. Regular consumption of beans is associated with balanced cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as better glucose control and weight management. (10) There have been some controversies surrounding soy consumption, however, according to a 2017 commentary by Tina Kaczor, ND, FABNO, in the Natural Medicine Journal, “To date, not a single study of moderate soy consumption has found detrimental effects in women with a history of breast cancer.” (11)

Food first, supplement second

Most healthcare professionals want their patients to look to food first for their essential fatty acids. However, many integrative practitioners find that their patients are not eating enough fish or other fatty acid foods to get the full benefit of those powerful essential fatty acids. In those cases, they recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.

According to integrative health expert, Ronald Hoffman, MD, there are many health advantages associated with eating fish and recommending fish oil supplements. (12) Hoffman cautions that quality is key when it comes to fish oil supplements so be sure to recommend a reputable brand.

person holding a bowl of fish oil

According to integrative health expert, Ronald Hoffman, MD, there are many health advantages associated with eating fish and recommending fish oil supplements.

The bottom line

Essential fatty acids are critical to the optimal functioning of our body systems including the heart, brain, immune, and more. Getting these fats from foods should be a top priority for everyone. And if the diet does not contain enough of these healthy fatty acid foods, essential fatty acid supplements should be considered to help fill the gap.

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  1. Lai HT, de Oliveira Otto MC, Lemaltre RN, et al. Serial circulating omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and healthy aging among older adults in the Cardiovascular Health Study: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2018;363.
  2. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Accessed online September 2019.
  3. Khaw K, Sharp SJ, Finikarides L, et al. Randomized trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. BMJ Open Access. 2018;8.
  4. American Heart Association. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. Accessed online September 2019.
  5. Hosomi R, Yoshida M, Fukunaga K. Seafood consumption and components for health. Global Journal of Health Science. 2012;4(3):72-86.
  6. Kajla P, Sharma A, Sood DR. Flaxseed—a potential functional food source. Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2015;52(4):1857-1871.
  7. Holscher HD, Giuetterman HM, Swanson KS, et al. Walnut consumption alters the gastrointestinal microbiota, microbially derived secondary bile acids, and health markers in health adults: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Nutrition. 2018;148(6):861-867.
  8. Ros E, Izquierdo-Pulido M, Sala-Vila A. Beneficial effects of walnut consumption on human health: role of micronutrients. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2018;21(6):498-504.
  9. Pribis P. Effects of walnut consumption on mood in young adults—a randomized controlled trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(11):668.
  10. Polak R, Phillips EM, Campbell A. Legumes: health benefits and culinary approaches to increase intake. Clinical Diabetes. 2015;33(4):198-205.
  11. Kaczor, T. Soy and breast cancer: more research in defense of soy. Natural Medicine Journal. 2017:9(6).
  12. Natural Medicine Journal. Essential fatty acids in clinical practice: A conversation with Ronald Hoffman, MD. Podcast. 2019;11(8).