Research into omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease has been a bit confusing.
Studies seem to show that these fats can reduce our risk of heart disease, but they also seem to show that omega-3 fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, usually called “bad cholesterol.”
LDL cholesterol is called bad cholesterol because it is the type that clogs our arteries and causes atherosclerosis.
So how can more LDL be good?
The answer lies in a new study published in the latest Journal of the American Heart Association.
Researchers at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and Harvard Medical School hypothesized that the answer lies in the type of LDL cholesterol that is increased by omega-3 fats.
They collected data on 26,034 people from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Women’s Health Study. The data covered their eating habits, their consumption of fish and other sources of omega-3s, their medication use, their physical activity levels, their smoking status, and a range of other information.
Most importantly, it included the results of nuclear magnetic resonance scans on the participants’ blood that could characterize their blood components in detail.
They divided omega-3 intake into total omega-3s, fish, and the omega-3 subtypes called eicosapentaenoic, docosahexaenoic, and alpha-linolenic acids.
Alpha-linolenic acids occur in plants such as flaxseed, walnuts, and chia. The other two subtypes are obtained from fish and, if you are vegetarian, from edible algae.
Those who consumed the most fish and total omega-3s had significantly lower levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood) and higher levels of large VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein) particles.
Those who consumed the most eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in the form of fish had the highest total and LDL cholesterol, but their cholesterol particles were larger than those who consumed the least of these fatty acids.
Total omega-3 intake and docosahexaenoic acid and alpha-linolenic acid intake also increased the participant’s HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein; the so-called “good cholesterol”) and the size of their HDL particles.
These are important findings since they confirm that it is not our cholesterol levels but rather the exact nature of our cholesterol particles that matters in the origins of heart disease.
To be more precise, small cholesterol particles cause atherosclerosis, not large ones, and since omega-3 fats promote large particles at the expense of small ones, consuming omega-3s is a good way to protect against atherosclerosis.
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