In a college nutrition class I took back in the 90s, I overheard a classmate boasting to a small group about how she only ate fat-free food. Most of America was still in the clutches of the fat-free craze, and my classmate’s views weren’t at all uncommon. Dietary fat was being blamed for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many other impairments of health. But instinctively, I thought that banning fat was a bad idea—I just didn’t have the facts to back up my theory. Now, a decade later, research is proving my hunch—that some types of fat can actually prevent disease and improve health. The key lies in a general understanding of fats, and in knowing which fats to emphasize in your diet.|
The Fat Family Tree
The family of fat is very complex, so to make it less confusing, picture it as a family tree. At the top, there are two different families of fat—saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Saturated fat (butter is one example) is packed with hydrogen atoms, making it solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fat (like olive oil) contains fewer hydrogen atoms, so it is liquid at room temperature. The family of unsaturated fat includes two children: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. In the polyunsaturated fat family, you'll find omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, and it is the omega-3 family that has been making headlines in the nutrition world.
3 Types of Omega 3s
There are actually three types of fatty acids that are collectively referred to as omega 3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Besides being hard to pronounce, they are extremely important to your health. Omega 3s are "essential" fatty acids, because they are necessary for health and must be included in your diet (because the human body cannot manufacture them on its own). But what exactly are they used for, and what do they do for human health?
Mega Health Benefits
Extensive research indicates that omega-3 fats reduce inflammation, helping to prevent inflammatory diseases like heart disease and arthritis. In addition to warding off inflammation, omega 3s are also essential to the brain, impacting behavior and cognitive function, and are especially necessary during fetal development. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM), omega 3s may also: