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Going nuts

Research has found the walnut and some other plants can supply omega 3 fats as efficiently as fish. Could this be the next food fad? Post-Dispatch archive photo.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say they’ve found new sources of omega 3 fatty acids that are known to combat heart disease.

The research shows that plant-based omega fats appear to be as beneficial as those from fish and olive oil — the current standards — in combating heart disease.

“The bottom line of our research is that both marine omega-3 fatty acids and plant-derived fatty acids have very similar (heart disease) benefits,” said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, Department of Nutritional Sciences, at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. “You should advise people to eat both.”

Washington University nutritionist Connie Diekman says the findings are welcome news. For so long, fish, fish oil and olive oil have been the standards for dietary omega 3 fats.

The study points to plant-based sources as valuable: Walnuts, flax and flax seed oils, canola oil, chia seeds and possibly others. “The consensus is more research is needed, but don’t ignore these other forms,” Diekman said.

Plant-based omega fatty acid, a-linolenic acid, or ALA, is beneficial against heart disease but hasn’t been studied enough to now how beneficial.

But, says Diekman, these new sources could patch a hole in the dietary shield against heart disease. “Most people don’t eat enough fish,” Diekman said. “This most recent study looks at the role of ALA and could be as good for heart disease prevention as fatty fish.”

Heart disease and stroke are together the No. 1 killer in the United States, claiming more lives annually than all of the cancers combined. Heart disease is the top killer of women.

“If ALA provides complementary benefits, as fish, to prevent heart disease, we need people to know that,” Diekman said.

Diekman said the key to a good diet remains eating balanced meals and not overloading or underloading on anything in particular. For example, people still eat too much meat protein and to few vegetable carbohydrates.

“It’s about the whole diet,” she said. “Putting these things in place of harmful fats is what we need to do.”

She finds the news about walnuts to be welcome because they can vie with snacks. “Maybe we need to use walnuts instead of pretzels,” Diekman said.

The study appeared in the November issue of Advances in Nutrition scientific journal.

Diekman says there has been tremendous confusion about what is healthful and what isn’t. Balancing carbs, fats and proteins is constantly debated, she said.

Diekman is former president of the American Dietitians Association, now the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is head of nutrition for Washington University.

Harry Jackson is a health reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.