Healthy omega-3 levels found in fewer than 4% of coastal residents
A new report underscores the severity of a nutritional problem that afflicts most Americans.
Before we get to that news, it’s critical to place it in the context of America’s “omega imbalance”.
The human body needs both omega-6 and omega-3 fats to survive and thrive, and until very recently, people worldwide consumed about three times as much omega-6 fat as omega-3 fat.
The average American now consumes 10 to 20 times as much omega-6 fat as omega-3 fat — an imbalance that hurts basic health by promoting chronic inflammation and harmful “epigenetic” effects.
Those effects explain the ample — and ever-growing — evidence that diets featuring a significant omega-3/6 imbalance harm brain, cardiovascular, developmental, and metabolic health.
The common causes of America’s omega-3/6 imbalance
Omega-3 EPA and DHA occur in virtually every cell in the human body. The immune system uses them to end inflammation after it’s served its purpose.
Their role in inflammation control explains why a shortage of omega-3 fats — especially in the presence of excess omega-6 fats — promotes chronic inflammation.
In addition, DHA is an essential structural and functional component of eye and brain cells, with DHA constituting about 60% of the fatty acids in your brain.
Unfortunately, most Americans consume far too much plant-source omega-6 fat — mostly from cheap vegetable oils (soy, corn, cottonseed, safflower) — and far too little omega-3 fat. For more on that, see Americans Failing to Reach Ideal Omega-3 Levels.
That excess intake of plant-source omega-6 fats matters because they compete with dietary plant-source omega-3s for conversion into the “long-chain” omega-3s — called EPA and DHA — the body needs for essential functions.
This explains why researchers urge Americans to eat more seafood, which — aside from fish oil supplements — is the sole food source of omega-3 DHA and EPA.
By eating more seafood — especially fatty fish — and/or taking fish oil, a person can significantly blunt the ill effects of excessive intake of plant-source omega-6 fats from vegetable oils.
People can avoid an excessive consumption of omega-6 fats by avoiding oily take-out, restaurant, and processed foods — whose component oils are almost always omega-6-rich varieties — and by cooking at home with oils low in omega-6 fats (olive, high-oleic sunflower, canola, macadamia nut, and coconut).
Now that we’ve set the stage with some context, let’s look at some surprising — and disturbing — new evidence.
Fewer than 4% of coastal residents had healthy omega-3 levels
The new report is based on the results of blood test data from 234 residents of coastal Newport, Rhode Island.
Newport is located on the Atlantic coast, has many seafood restaurants and retailers, and its residents enjoy easy access to seafood. So, it seemed likely that they would have above-average blood levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA.
Blood drawn from the 234 volunteers was tested to determine its Omega-3 Index, which is the percentage of all fatty acids in a person’s red blood cells accounted for by omega-3 EPA + omega-3 DHA.
Peer-reviewed scientific evidence persuasively links an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher to reduced risks for adverse cardiovascular outcomes such as heart attacks.
Conversely, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or lower is linked to significantly higher risks for heart attack, stroke, or sudden cardiac death among people with diagnosed cardiovascular disease.
And although the potential remains unproven, it seems very likely that — given the known functions of EPA and DHA in the human body — having an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher would also promote optimal brain, eye, immune, and developmental health.
Nonetheless, the authors of a study published two years ago found that — even among Americans aware of the need for omega-3s and who report eating a reasonably balanced diet — 98 percent had an Omega-3 Index well below the optimal 8% minimum level (Thuppal SV et al. 2017).
(As we reported last month in High-Dose Omega-3s Score Twin Heart-Health Wins, researchers recently determined the amount of dietary omega-3s needed to reach an Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher: see the section titled “Study confirms fish oil dose needed for optimal heart protection”.)
Unexpectedly and unfortunately, the average Newport resident volunteered for the new study had an Omega-3 Index of only 5.2%, which is well below the optimal 8% goal.
Cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, co-authored the 2017 study mentioned above, which found that 98% of Americans had an Omega-3 Index well below the optimal 8% minimum level.
As Dr. Steinbaum said, “The Omega-3 test results in Newport reflect a national trend and should be a wake-up call for many health-conscious Americans. So many of us who think we are getting all our nutrients from our diet alone may be wrong. Just like you know your cholesterol or blood pressure, it's important to know your omega-3 levels, and make changes if you are low.”
By far, the richest dietary sources of omega-3 EPA and DHA are fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, sablefish, mackerel, and albacore tuna, which has much more than other tuna species. Of course, you can also get ample amounts of EPA and DHA from fish or krill oil supplements.
One of the volunteers in the study — who is the chef at local seafood restaurant Fluke Newport — expressed surprise at his blood test results: “As someone who lives and breathes locally sourced food, I was shocked to learn that I was low in omega-3s,” said Eddie Montalvo. “I didn't even realize there was a way to test your levels and now I'm going to be more proactive about my health, overall.”
Know your omega balance
Vital Choice is among the few companies that offer an at-home blood test that measures your Omega-3 Index.
And, unlike other omega blood tests, the Vital Omega-3/6 HUFA Test™ also measures your omega-3/omega-6 balance and provides a Vital O-Mega™ Heart Risk Score that predicts your cardiovascular risk based on that balance.
The Vital Omega-3/6 HUFA Test™ also provides several other blood-fat measures, whose significance is explained in your test report:
- Total Omega-3s
- Total Omega-6s
- Omega-3 EPA, DHA, ALA, and DPA
- Total Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio
- AA/EPA ratio
The test report also explains how your key test results compare to the U.S. average and to optimal levels.
- Murphy R.A., Yu E.A., Ciappio E.D., Mehta S., McBurney M.I. Suboptimal plasma long chain n-3 concentrations are common among adults in the united states, NHANES 2003-2004. Nutrients. 2015;7:10282–10289. doi: 10.3390/nu7125534.
- Papanikolaou Y., Brooks J., Reider C., Fulgoni V.L. U.S. Adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: Results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutr. J. 2014;13:31. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-13-31.
- Stark K.D., van Elswyk M.E., Higgins M.R., Weatherford C.A., Salem N., Jr. Global survey of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in the blood stream of healthy adults. Prog. Lipid Res. 2016;63:132–152. doi: 10.1016/j.plipres.2016.05.001.
- Thuppal SV, von Schacky C, Harris WS, Sherif KD, Denby N, Steinbaum SR, Haycock B, Bailey RL. Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index. Nutrients. 2017 Aug 24;9(9). pii: E930. doi: 10.3390/nu9090930.
- Yurko-Mauro K, Kralovec J, Bailey-Hall E, Smeberg V, Stark JG, Salem N Jr. Similar eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid plasma levels achieved with fish oil or krill oil in a randomized double-blind four-week bioavailability study. Lipids Health Dis. 2015 Sep 2;14:99. doi: 10.1186/s12944-015-0109-z.