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Playing the numbers game

You probably know a little bit about omega-3 fatty acids, and you may even have heard about omega-6 fatty acids. But what are they, and why are they so good for you?

Omega-3

Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids. We get them mostly from foods. Many experts consider omega-3 the most important of the omegas. It may help:

  • protect against heart disease
  • reduce levels of triglycerides (a type of blood fat)
  • improve heart rhythm problems and reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death
  • slightly lower blood pressure

You can find omega-3 fatty acids in certain nuts, such as walnuts; in vegetable oils such as canola, soybean and flaxseed oil; and in sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel, halibut, tuna and other fatty fish.

The biggest heart boost seems to come from fish, which is why experts recommend eating two servings a week. Worried about mercury contamination? Government researchers say that the benefits of eating fish usually outweigh the risk of contaminant exposure. Still, children and women who are or may become pregnant should limit fish to 12 ounces a week or less and avoid larger fish, like shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, which contain more mercury.

If you’re at high risk for bleeding, ask your healthcare provider before adding omega-3 to your diet. It can increase your risk of bleeding if taken in large quantities.

Omega-6

When consumed in moderation, omega-6 fats are also good for your heart—especially when you eat them instead of saturated and trans fats. However, omega-6, which is found in vegetable oils like corn and sunflower oils, tofu, nuts and seeds, has been the subject of controversy.

Previous research has suggested that too much omega-6 could spur inflammation, damaging the heart. But the American Heart Association recently came out in support of omega-6; studies have shown that people who ate the most omega-6 actually have a lower incidence of heart disease and lower blood pressure than those who ate less of the stuff.

Bottom line: Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids appear to offer plenty of heart benefits, but eating an overall healthy diet is the best way to combat heart disease.