Fats in the Beginning
Although the trend over the last twenty years has been towards a more “fat-free” diet we now understand that some fat is actually essential to human well being. The body needs essential fatty acids just like it needs other essential vitamins and minerals to help prevent and treat numerous diseases. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are also required by the body to control a large number of cellular processes. Since essential fatty acids are not produced naturally in the body, they must be obtained through food and nutritional supplements.
Modern science has discovered that EFAs profoundly influence the health of the human body. Research with essential fatty acid supplementation has shown promise in a number of areas including: cardiovascular health, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions, brain function, infant development, immune function, and cancer prevention.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Cold-water, fatty fish and fish oils contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for cardiovascular disease have been well documented and studied. The benefits of fish oil emerged when researchers noticed that people who frequently ate fish suffered fewer heart attacks and died of heart disease at a lower rate than those who seldom ate fish. 8-11 Most significantly, those studies showed that eating fish offers powerful protection against one of the most dreaded and unpredictable consequences of heart disease- “sudden-death”- heart attacks that kill within minutes.
One of the turning points for omega-3s and heart health was in 1999, when the British medical journal, Lancet, published the largest study to date on fish oils and heart attack patients.12 The placebo-controlled trial included more than 11,000 heart attack patients who were followed for three to five years. The patients who took 850 mg per day of a fish oil supplement showed a 45% decrease in risk of sudden cardiac death and a 20% reduction in mortality from all causes.
Another landmark study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).13 The study examined the diets of 80,000 female nurses over the course of 14 years and found that the risk of stroke due to blood clotting can be reduced by almost 50% by eating fish two to four times a week. The authors believe that the benefits were gained through the omega-3 content of the fish.
The evidence of fish oil’s protective powers is so strong that the American Heart Association now urges everyone to eat at least two 3-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. In fall 2002, the American Heart Association advised people who already have heart disease to consume about 1 gram a day of the active ingredients in fish oil- EPA and DHA.14 This is one of the few times that a major health organization has endorsed any dietary supplement for treating or preventing disease.
In addition to heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids are also being studied for infant brain development, 18-22 as well as improved mental functioning in adults (ie. prevention and treatment of bipolar disorder, alzheimers, schizophrenia, and reduced stress levels)15-17, protective effects on ulcerative colitis, 24-26 and in controlling type 2 diabetes.