Dr Clare Bailey: The healthy fat your heart loves

Omega-3 is a type of healthy fat that is important for reducing inflammation and essential for heart health – but most of us don’t get enough in our diets. Low levels of omega-3 put you at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke. So how can you boost your intake? The best way to do this is by eating oily fish – such as salmon, mackerel, kippers or sardines – at least twice a week (girls, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or those who may have a baby one day are advised to consume no more than two portions a week). Although there is some anxiety about mercury levels, this mainly affects fish such as shark, marlin or swordfish (again, women who are trying for, or expecting, a baby and children should avoid these).

Maite Franchi/Folio Art

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you can go straight to where the fish get their omega-3 by eating seaweed or algae. However, apart from the Welsh, who like a bit of laverbread, we don’t eat a lot of seaweed in the UK, except in sushi. To be fair it is something of an acquired taste – I personally love seaweed, but the rest of my family are not so keen. Alternatively, you can now get seaweed and algae supplements in capsules, which are also a good source of omega-3.

As for taking fish oil supplements, there has been a lot of debate as to whether these deliver any significant health benefits. I have always been quite sceptical, but I recently came across new research that has made me think again. It was a big study in the US in which nearly 26,000 adults were given either a fish oil supplement daily or a placebo, then followed for five years. The researchers found that if you weren’t a regular fish-eater, then taking the supplement cut the risk of having a heart attack by as much as 40 per cent. Although no one knows why, the African-American participants who took part benefited the most, seeing a reduction in heart attacks of as much as 77 per cent.

However, the study showed that if participants were already eating at least 1.5 servings or more of fish a week, then taking the supplement didn’t seem to provide added benefits.

So who should take omega-3 fish oil supplements? According to the researcher behind the study, Dr Manson, ‘People with low dietary intake of fish will likely obtain a heart benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.’ If you’re not eating at least one generous portion of oily fish a week, it’s probably time to change your diet or top up with fish oil supplements (in the study they used a good-quality fish oil, Omacor, at a moderately high dose of 1g daily). Given that, worldwide, millions of people experience these cardiovascular events each year, even small reductions in risk could result in preventing hundreds of thousands of heart attacks and related deaths, according to the researchers.

Hobbies are good for you – fact!

woman painting

I have just started doing a life-drawing class, something that I haven’t done since school. I am of the age when children have left home and many of us start taking up new hobbies – and it turns out that there are health benefits to starting a new pastime, whether it’s gardening, yoga, needlepoint or ballroom dancing (also on my list).

Not only does a hobby reduce stress and counteract burnout, it can benefit physical health and reduce cognitive decline. Enjoyable activities have also been associated with lower levels of depression.

I’m not sure I’ve noticed that I can remember people’s names any better yet, but I’m certainly enjoying putting charcoal to paper. It’s intensely engaging, creating a state of total focus to the extent that you almost forget where you are. I’m still getting the head too big and the arms slightly different lengths, but it’s early days…