Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
How many of us have heard this before:
“OMG, that has so much fat! I’m not eating that!”
“I only eat low fat, I’m trying to be healthy.”
How many friends have you seen dab the oil off the top of a slice of pizza fresh from the oven? Or when browsing products in the supermarket, put down a full-fat one in favor of a low-fat one?
Today’s diet culture has a very specific vision of what it thinks healthy looks like, and a low-fat diet is often at the heart of it. Fat is often the accused culprit for a lot of ills in the world, and many self-proclaimed experts like to claim that a healthy lifestyle involves staying away from fat.
But not all fats are created equal, and in the world of healthy eating, there is one particular fat that rules them all.
It’s called omega-3 fatty acid.
Picture this: you’re out at a fine dining restaurant. You’ve already had your fill of red meat for the week, and that 16-ounce piece of steak isn’t exactly calling your name anyway. You scan the menu hoping for a more healthful option. You reach the fish section. Perfect! Pan-seared walnut-crusted salmon filet with a side of wilted spinach. You’ll have that.
Would you ever imagine that the meal you just chose was a serious source of fat? Your cheese pizza-dabbing friend would have heart palpitations. But contrary to popular belief, a diet rich in omega 3s is necessary for maintaining health. Unlike other fats that your body can produce naturally, omega 3s must be obtained from the food you eat. Cut out healthy sources like fish and leafy greens, and you won’t get what you need.
So now that you know you need them, why do you need them?
Most research shows a positive correlation between consumption of omega 3s and a reduction of the risk of heart disease. They also provide you with the calories that give your body–and particularly your heart–the energy to do what it needs to do. In addition to “merely” reducing your risk of heart disease, omega 3s can also lower your blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, and when taken in high amounts, can lower your triglyceride count and ease inflammation.
There are three major different types of omega 3s. Omega 3 type one is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. This is the main omega 3 that you need to be able to synthesize the other two. Found in plant based oils like canola, flaxseed, and soybean, if you cut out all sources of fat from your cooking, you severely reduce your ability to get enough of this essential nutrient.
Omega 3 type 2 is called eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA. Omega 3 type 3 is called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. These two omega 3s are commonly found in fish. Both of these marine-based omega 3s are associated with a reduced risk of irregular heart beat and fatal heart disease.
So now, instead of just going with the flow and listening to that Instagram-certified health guru that says eliminating fat from your diet is the way to go, remember that the pan-seared salmon you just ordered contains an essential amount of the heart-healthy fats we call omega 3s. Eliminating these from your diet can cause serious harm in the long-term.