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Omega-3 Fats Lower Cholesterol and Insulin-Key Risk Markers for Cardiovascular Disease

Early Arctic explorers were among the first to observe the enigma: Why did Eskimos, who consumed a diet loaded with fat, rarely develop heart disease? Mounting research on the many benefits for heart health that are associated with omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are found in many of the World's Healthiest Foods, has solved this riddle. The traditional Eskimo diet of coldwater fish, seal, and whale meat is exceptionally high in these beneficial fats. Now, a new study on rural Inuit populations in northern Quebec provides additional support to this already strong association.

Canadian researchers recently evaluated fatty acid levels in over 420 Inuit adults between the ages of 18 and 74 still living in northern coastal villages. Fatty acid levels were measured within the phospholipid membrane of red blood cells, which provides the most useful indicator of fatty acid intake and body status. Their analysis revealed that the blood cells of Inuits contained a relatively high percentage of levels of two critical omega-3 fats, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA).

These elevations in omega-3s were, in turn, directly linked with favorable profiles of other cardiac risk markers, such as higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and lower concentrations of insulin and fatty particles called triacylglycerols. In fact, higher blood levels of omega-3 fats appeared to even prevent the drop in HDL cholesterol that normally occurs during the aging process. Plus, they appeared to help protect the Inuits from metabolic and health complications of obesity, such as insulin resistance. "Despite the high prevalence of obesity and smoking among the Inuit…the mortality rate of ischemic heart disease is low in this population, most likely because of their traditional diet of n-3 fatty acids," the researchers observed.

Even the Inuits are, however, vulnerable to the health risks posed by the Standard American diet. While in the older men who still consumed a more traditional diet, levels of omega-3 fats tended to be significantly higher, among Intuits under 40, nearly twice as many had higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, indicating that their fatty acid balance was shifting toward a much less heart-healthy profile.

Since cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States, these younger Intuits, and all of us, could benefit from maintaining a diet rich in omega-3 fats. In an editorial related to the above study,

William E. Connor, M.D., of the Department of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, notes that studies have shown that omega-3 fats can favorably influence several important parameters of cardiovascular function including reducing the tendency for blood to clot, helping to avert inflammatory damage, preventing build-up of fatty plaque, improving lipid balance, and enhancing the natural elasticity of the lining of the blood vessels.

To find out if you are consuming enough of the World's Healthiest Foods rich in heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids, evaluate your diet at our Food Advisor. This handy tool will take you less than five minutes and provides a very useful guide for which nutrients you most likely need.

Want to quickly identify which foods are rich in a specific nutrient, like omega-3 fatty acids? Visit the Food Sources section of the omega-3 discussion.

For a list of the World's Healthiest Foods' Recipes rich in omega-3 fatty acids, use the Recipe Assistant, select "omega-3s" from the nutrient list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all our recipes containing omega-3s will appear immediately below.

References: Dewailly E, Blanchet C, Lemieux S, Sauve L, Gingras S, Ayotte P, Holub BJ. n-3 Fatty acids and cardiovascular disease risk factors among the Inuit of Nunavik. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;74:464-73. Connor WE. n-3 Fatty acids from fish and fish oil: panacea or nostrum? Am J Clin Nutr 2001;74:415-17.

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