ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The name sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but omega-3 fatty acids are a necessary part of our diet. "Every cell in the body requires omega-3 to function normally," says Dr. Andrew Stoll, author of "The Omega-3 Connection." "They are a class of fats, good fats that are actually as essential as vitamins to our health."
Researchers discovered that omega-3 protects the heart about 30 years ago. Doctors now know that the compound controls inflammation and protects cells by forming part of the cell membrane. "We know that omega-3 can protect the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, really every organ system that we know of, including the brain," says Stoll.
The problem is that most Americans don't get enough of the compound in their diet. Part of the reason, Stoll says, is they don't eat enough fish.
Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines are the best sources of omega-3 for the diet. For most patients, Stoll recommends one or two servings of the cooked fish a week. Unlike other fish, which store the compound in their liver, the four recommended varieties store the compound in their muscles, which are eaten by humans. Watch more on Omega 3s in Health Minute »
While certain fish are loaded with omega-3 and protein, they also contain some mercury, dioxins and PCBs. "It's a difficult situation to balance out," explains Stoll. "You need to eat some fish to be healthy, but if you eat too much fish, you're putting yourself at risk. ... So most Americans just can't eat enough fish to get omega-3 in their diet."
Stoll cautions pregnant women, those who are nursing and young children from eating any fish. He says toxins can be harmful to developing babies and youngsters.
Stoll suggests taking a daily fish oil supplement instead or finding another source. Vegetarians, for instance, can get the compound from specially enriched omega-3 eggs.
Flaxseed is another source of a different type of omega-3. Stoll says it's a good way to increase your fiber, but flax doesn't offer the same benefits of the compound found in fatty fish. He also warns that the bodies of two-thirds of the population cannot convert the omega-3 found in flaxseed.
According to Stoll, "Taking more than three tablespoons a day of raw flaxseed or ground flaxseed can inhibit the uptake of iodine in the thyroid, which can produce a goiter or enlargement of the thyroid gland."
While Stoll doesn't call omega-3 a dietary miracle, he does say, "We need it for optimal health. ... If you have very little omega-3 in your diet, you will be prone to inflammatory disorders." E-mail to a friend
Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.
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