Most women dread the word “fat”, especially when they’re posing in front of a changing room mirror. But love handles aside, they seem to bear a grudge against dietary fats too.
After all, saturated fats (found in meat, dairy and eggs) or trans fats (found in foods like French fries, cookies, cakes, etc.) are known to be bad for the body. They lead to clogged arteries and bump up your risk for coronary disease.
But not all dietary fats are created equal. There is one type of good fat you cannot do without – omega-3. A type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 is key to optimal health. Yet, the human body cannot produce it on its own. So it is essential to get omega-3 from your daily diet.
“There are different forms of omega-3 fatty acids – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The latter two, which are found in certain types of fish, are what our bodies need the most,” says Nehal Kamdar, Senior Dietitian, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital (KKH).
ALA, a more basic form of omega-3 found in plant sources like flaxseed, is also good as it can be partially converted into DHA and EPA in the body. “But the way the body does so is inadequate,” says Ms Kamdar. “Also, DHA and EPA have better established health benefits than ALA, such as boosting heart health and brain power.”
Health benefits for women
Besides these general health benefits, omega-3 is particularly favourable for women for the following reasons:
#1: It can ease menstrual pain.
Many women endure abdominal discomfort and cramps every month, a condition known in medical terms as dysmenorrhea. It is caused by strong contractions of the uterus triggered by prostaglandins (chemicals in the body involved with pain and inflammation). Studies have found that omega-3, well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, can help to soothe this menstrual pain.
“There is some evidence that omega-3 can drive away period blues too,” says Ms Kamdar. “It may help to bring hormonal fluctuations under control and stabilise your mood.”
#2: It may prevent colorectal cancer.
Based on a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who ate fish thrice weekly were 33 per cent less likely to develop polyps, or tissue growth, in the colon. While colon polyps are slow growing and carry a low risk of turning into a malignancy, they do have a high frequency that increases with age and can result in a predisposition to colon cancer.
Interestingly, men don’t seem to derive the same cancer-prevention benefits. “Part of the reason could be as a result of background dietary differences between men and women,” says Ms Kamdar.
#3: It protects you against osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is the loss of bone density over time. Starting off with a lower bone density, women are at a naturally higher risk for osteoporosis than men. And for women with a genetic predisposition, the risk is even higher. Sometimes, a drop in oestrogen during menopause causes the condition.
Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may help in increasing calcium levels and improve bone density. However, the evidence remains inconclusive. Some studies have also suggested that people who do not get enough of essential fatty acids (especially EPA and gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid) are more likely to have bone loss than those with normal level of these fatty acids.
#4: It lowers your risk for breast cancer.
Based on an American study involving 35,000 post-menopausal women who had no history of breast cancer, a diet rich in omega-3 can significantly cut a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Women who had fish oil supplements had 32 per cent less risk of developing breast cancer.
However, these finding are preliminary and additional research is needed to understand the effect that omega-3 may have on breast cancer prevention.
#5: It keeps you in a happy mood.
Omega-3 can fend off depression too. In one of the largest studies on omega-3 supplements published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, omega-3 supplements were found to be effective against major depression (but not anxiety disorders).
“In this study, the high levels of EPA in the omega-3 supplements used stabilised the mood and improved the quality of life of patients,” says Ms Kamdar. In another study by the University of Pavia in Italy on the links of omega-3 and depression in elderly women, the same benefits were observed. However, researchers are of the opinion that additional research directly comparing omega-3 with conventional antidepressants could more clearly confirm their usefulness for patients suffering from depression.
Add omega-3 to your diet!
Say the word “omega-3” and salmon comes to mind. Well, you don’t have to eat the same fish three times a week. The foods listed below are also good sources of omega-3:
Food types Examples
Fish & seafood Wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, scallops, krill
Nuts Walnuts, Brazil nuts and soy nuts
Plants Algae, flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, cauliflower, hummus, collard greens
Ms Kamdar adds: “If you are overweight, watch out for food such as nuts and oils as they are high in calories and may contribute to excessive weight gain.”
And if you want to be sure you’re getting enough omega-3, you may consider taking a supplement containing fish oil, krill oil or high-DHA algae oil.
Before starting to take any supplements, always consult your family doctor for specific recommendations or warnings based on your health status.
– Source: This article was written by Jaclyn Lim for Health Xchange, with expert input from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital (KKH).