By now you’ve probably heard of omega-3s, a type of fatty acid in foods like fatty fish that is converted to compounds that help to reduce inflammation in the body. Then there are omega-6s, fatty acids that give rise to chemicals in the body that increase inflammation. The precursors to the omega-6s and omega-3s, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, are essential fatty acids that your body can’t make and must get from diet. Most people get a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in their diet that’s too high, which may put them at greater risk for health problems like heart disease and some types of cancer. But there’s another group of fatty acids that play a role in health called omega-9 fatty acids that most people are less familiar with.
What Are Omega-9 Fatty Acids?
Omega-9s are a type of monounsaturated fat. Most research shows that monounsaturated fats lower LDL-cholesterol levels while raising levels of HDL, the “good” form of cholesterol, making them a heart-healthy type of fat. Unlike omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9s are not essential fatty acids since your body can make them from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids but only if you get enough of them. Why is this important? Some research suggests that omega-9s lower the risk of heart disease when they replace saturated fat in the diet. So omega-9s are a type of fatty acid that has health benefits.
What Foods Contain Omega-9s?
One of the best sources of dietary omega-9s is olive oil. This is due to its high content of oleic acid, a type of omega-9 fatty acid. Whether oleic acid accounts for most of the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil is unclear since olive oil is also a rich source of polyphenols. Polyphenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that likely also lower the risk of heart disease, so olive oil contains two types of compounds that potentially reduce heart disease risk. Not surprisingly, the risk of heart disease is lower in areas that use more olive oil.
Another good dietary source of dietary omega-9s is avocados. Avocados are also a powerful force for lowering the risk of heart disease. Not only are they rich in omega-9s, but they also contain phytosterols that help to lower LDL-cholesterol and reduce inflammation that can damage arteries and lead to heart disease.
Other good sources of omega-9s are nuts, especially macadamia nuts and hazelnuts. If you don’t like nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are also rich in heart-healthy omega-9s. The omega-9s in these foods have another benefit. They increase the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients from foods. If you eat a fresh veggie salad, you’ll absorb more of the carotenoids if you add some nuts, a slice of avocado or use an olive oil dressing.
The Bottom Line?
Omega-9s are monounsaturated fats that your body can make in small quantities from other essential fatty acids, but research suggests these fats may reduce the risk of heart disease. That’s why nuts, avocados, seeds, and olive oil can all be part of a heart-healthy diet. Next time you need a snack, skip the chips and reach for a handful of nuts or seeds instead.
Aust Fam Physician 2009;38:218-221.
Circulation. 1999; 100: 1253-1258.
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