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Last month, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Center for Alaska Native Health Research published the results of a study on the Yup’ik Eskimos, a salmon-loving people who consume 20 times more omega-3 fats from fish than most other Americans. Obese Yup’iks were found to have a lower risk for heart disease and diabetes than obese Americans in the lower 48 states. The reason? Omega-3s.

Touted regularly for their supposed health benefits, what are these magical fats and what do they really do?

1. We can’t make them ourselves.

Humans can’t produce omega-3s; we’ve got to eat them. Although fish are a top source of these essential fatty acids, some vegetables and nuts also contain plenty. In fact, you don’t need to eat just fish to get your fix: flaxseed oil tops the list of foods with the highest omega-3 content, trumping salmon.

2. They don’t work miracles – but they’ll help your heart.

Omega-3s are polysaturated fatty acids, which play a role in our cognitive development. Signs of not getting enough of them include poor memory, fatigue and depression.

While omega-3s have been linked with curing everything from dry eyes to arthritis, evidence is strongest for their ability to lessen the risks for heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol by reducing inflammation and triglyceride fats. A seminal study, which followed more than 20,000 healthy men over a span of 11 years, found that those who ate fish at least once per month had a 50 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death.

Evidence is murkier for a host of other omega-3 benefits, including claims for lowering the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, osteoporosis, depression, psoriasis and certain cancers.

3. Something may be fishy.

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week, preferably an omega-3-rich fatty fish like salmon, herring or mackerel. But rising mercury levels in seafood have made eating fish a potentially risky situation, especially for pregnant women and young children. (The Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women to eat up to 12 ounces per week of fish that are lower in mercury, which is equal to two servings.)

Get the omega-3 and mercury levels of commonly consumed fish and shellfish. If you’re concerned about mercury, get your omega-3s through other sources, like spinach and walnuts.

4. Take your pills.

A 2006 study revealed that omega-3s levels rose more in people who got them through eating fish than from taking fish oil supplements. But fish oil supplements are still a good source for getting your omega-3s.

Still, supplements aren’t guaranteed to be toxin free, to be sure to check if they’re certified to contain no mercury. Find out your recommended dose and possible safety concerns and drug interactions.

5. Get the balance right.

Omega-6s, essential fatty acids found in many oils and animal fats, can increase inflammation when not balanced out by enough omega-3s. The standard American diet, which is heavy on grain- and corn-fed meats, is typically 15 or more times too high in omega-6s.

To balance out your 6s and 3s, eat less meat and more vegetables and whole grains. And not all fish are created equal: factory-farmed fish isn’t quite as packed with omega-3s as non-farmed fish.