By Julia Rosien
If you skimp on healthy fats-omega-3s in fish, supplements, and some plant and dairy products-you're missing out on a great way to help prevent a host of common problems. Here's a quick look at how good these fats really are, and the best ways to work them into your life.
1. Fight those aches
How omega-3s help: Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that nearly two-thirds of patients suffering from chronic neck and back pain stopped needing anti-inflammatory pain pills after taking fish-oil pills for 20 to 30 days. The key may be omega-3s' ability to fight inflammation.
How to get them: You don't necessarily have to take the pills, says Joseph C. Maroon, MD, a University of Pittsburgh neurosurgeon. Cold-water ocean fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) and lake trout are the best sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
Health.com: 20 healthy salmon recipes
2. Stay slim
How omega-3s help: Mood swings can lead to bring-on-the-brownies moments that sabotage your efforts to lose weight. Omega-3s may help by stabilizing your moods, says Douglas Bibus, PhD, an omega-3 researcher and scientist at the University of Minnesota's Academic Health Center.
How to get them: Bibus recommends taking a high-quality supplement for 30 days. If you don't notice a difference, increase your dosage.
Health.com: The secrets to staying slim
3. Have more "up" days
How omega-3s help: Another form of omega-3s known as DHA makes up 25 percent of your body's brain fat and manages the production and flow of the feel-good chemical serotonin. People who battle depression seem to be DHA-deficient.
How to get them: Researchers believe a DHA supplement may be a gentler (and ultimately more effective) alternative to antidepressants, says David Perlmutter, MD, author of The Better Brain Book and an expert on the relationship between nutrition and neurological disorders. But don't count on just any supplement available at a drugstore or on the Web. Here's a list of omega-3 supplements judged in independent tests to be fresh and free of contaminants, and to have the amount of good fats listed on the label.
Health.com: Foods to boost your mood
4. Breathe easier
How omega-3s help: Omega-3s may help reduce the inflammation associated with asthma. In a recent Indiana University study, patients taking fish-oil supplements were better at controlling exercise-triggered symptoms than people taking a placebo or just eating a normal diet were.
How to get them: A supplement is your best bet, Bibus says.
Health.com: The 10 best big cities for people with asthma
5. Keep your heart healthy
How omega-3s help: In addition to fighting inflammation, omega-3s may lower blood pressure and reduce clotting. And they may help fight diabetes, too. "Diabetes has a strong inflammatory component, which leads to a much greater risk of developing heart disease," Bibus explains. Omega-3s help cells lower blood sugar, a key to avoiding diabetes, Perlmutter adds.
Health.com: The best foods for your heart
How to get them: Eat plant foods like flax, walnuts, spinach, arugula, avocados, and canola oil, and soy products like full-fat tofu and edamame. They have a form of omega-3s called ALA that may help prevent heart disease, according to Harvard Medical School scientists. Also eat coldwater fish twice a week. And if you like eggs, shop for brands like Eggland's Best that contain high levels of omega-3s. Bon appetit.
By Julia Rosien