Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet – contained in oily fish and as supplements – are proven to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but they also help to maintain people’s health in other ways, reported a leading academic, who carries out research in this field.
Two of the main polyunsaturated fatty acids with these beneficial health impacts are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), explained Philip Calder, professor of nutritional immunology at the University of Southampton and president of the Nutrition Society.
Calder was giving the 2016 British Nutrition Foundation annual lecture, which took place at Royal College of Physicians last November. His presentation was titled ‘Omega-3 – the good oil’.
“The consensus at the moment is that EPA and especially DHA are very poorly synthesised for most humans so, for health, dietary sources will be very important,” said Calder.
However, he stressed that the content of these fatty acids in different fish species varied widely, with oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, containing the highest concentrations.
“People can increase their intake of omega-3 by simply eating more oily fish and, of course, by taking supplements they can greatly increase their EPA and DHA,” he said.
“Having more EPA and DHA in the blood – but also in cells and tissues – is linked to improved health.”
As well as reducing the risk of CVD, Calder explained that EPA and DHA also had beneficial effects on other aspects of human health, such as metabolism, inflammation, immune response and the function of the liver, heart and the brain.
“So they are really fundamentally important to human health,” he stressed. “If you put all the data together, it suggests fairly convincingly that early intake of oily fish or omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of contracting diseases.”
Public health bodies now recommended that everybody – including pregnant women – should consume two portions of oily fish in their diet each week, Calder added.
In a separate development, a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that omega-3 and omega-6 – another fatty acid – played important roles in cognitive functions, including memory and planning.
The paper suggested that an appropriate balance between omega-3 and omega-6 was crucial for optimal cognitive performance in children aged 7–12.
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