The Flex Diet – It Bends, So You Don't Break.

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Doctors have supported the heart-health benefits of omega-3s for years. They noticed that people who ate diets high in fish — which often contain omega-3s — were found to be less likely to develop heart disease. Research shows that fish oil not only improves your cholesterol numbers, but increases blood flow to exercising muscles. This results in more efficient metabolism of fat during exercise. So not only can fish oil reduce your risk of heart disease, but it can help you look better, too!

The major types of omega-3 fatty acids include:

• EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid), found in fish oil and fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel
• ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in plant sources, like walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and soybean oil

Getting omega-3s from fish itself is what I tend to recommend. And the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice every week. Eating more fish means you can also cut back on eating other foods that might be less healthy.

If you find it challenging to eat fish so frequently, a fish oil supplement is another option. Check the Environmental Defense Fund (www.edf.org ) to find supplement brands that meet safety standards. As with every supplement, it’s very important to clear it first with your doctor. Fish oil can increase the risk of bleeding, particularly in people taking blood thinners. Newer preparations are lower on the fishy after-taste. And many people find that storing fish oil capsules in the refrigerator helps them go down easier. You might find it interesting to have your doctor check your cholesterol before and after you increase your omega-3 intake. You’ll soon be motivated by the improvements!

How do you make sure you and your family are getting a healthy dose of omega-3s every week?

Many of us are getting our lipid profiles checked more regularly these days, even in the absence of significant risk factors for heart disease. Prevention is the best treatment, and learning more about your cholesterol and triglyceride levels can motivate you to make some healthy changes in your diet. Eating healthier can push those numbers in the right direction (by 20% or more). And research shows that this alone can reduce your risk of heart disease, even in the absence of medications.

Not sure where to start? Remember the Four F’s; four dietary components to consider while making your way to the path of more cholesterol-friendly eating:

1. Fish: Not only does fish provide a healthy alternative to processed meats and those higher in saturated fats like beef or pork, but fish also provides omega-3 fatty acids that actually raise your good cholesterol (HDL) and help lower your bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglyceride levels. Some doctors recommend taking fish oil supplements to take the guesswork out of it. But the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week. And go for fresh or frozen fish over fast food or fried fish.

2. Fruit: Eating more fruits — and vegetables, as well — will help you get your cholesterol down, partially by increasing your fiber intake, but also by replacing some of the refined starches and high-fat snacks that are currently a part of your diet. In addition, eating a few pieces of fruit every day has also been associated with weight loss!

3. Fiber: As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Americans generally get about half the daily amount of recommended fiber. Fiber is so helpful because it lowers your LDL while keeping you satiated. You don’t need to obsess over counting your fiber grams. But make a conscious effort to steer yourself towards fiber-rich foods like oatmeal for breakfast, higher fiber breads and cereals, beans, and again, fruits and veggies.

4. Fats: Fats are key. Remember that not all fats are created equal. Your goals should be to stay away from saturated fats, to avoid trans fats like the plague, and to cozy up to unsaturated fats, like those you’ll find in fish, almonds, avocados, and foods fortified with plant sterols. Switch out your cooking oil du jour for olive oil and help boost your HDL while lowering your LDL in the process.

The Four F’s make for easy substitutions to less healthy options, and can help improve your lipid profile when included in your diet.