Two recent reports highlight a real risk to American women’s heart and overall health.
That risk stems from the lack of omega-3s in their diets, which, among other things, raises the risk for heart disease.
The new studies come from Germany and Australia, where people eat diets comparable to the distinctly unhealthful “standard American diet”.
A recent study found that very few Americans consume recommended amounts of omega-3-rich fatty fish (two servings per week).
Intakes of fatty fish appeared somewhat higher among those over age 50, and among men versus women (Papanikolaou Y et al. 2014).
Most people in all three countries get too few omega-3 fats and far too many omega-6 fats, mostly from cheap vegetable oils.
This extreme — and historically unprecedented — “omega imbalance” is proven to drive the risk for inflammation-related brain, heart, and immune diseases much higher.
Both of the new studies, particularly the one from Germany, should encourage Americans — especially women — to eat more seafood and/or take omega-3 fish oil.
Before we scrutinize those studies, let’s quickly review the importance of omega-3s, with particular attention to women.
Lack of seafood = lack of omega-3s, vitamin D, iodine, and more
The average American’s lack of long-chain omega-3s (DHA and EPA) stems primarily from a lack of seafood.
That shortage of seafood is also partially responsible for lack of vitamin D, which is linked to bone weakness and higher risks for cardiovascular disease and various cancers.
Lack of seafood can also lead to a shortage of iodine, which promotes fatigue, weight gain — and possibly breast and other cancers — see Women at Higher Risk for Iodine Deficiency.
Most ocean (not fresh water) fish are also excellent sources of selenium — a critical component of the body’s antioxidant network.
How much do omega-3s matter?
To get a sense of the importance of omega-3 DHA and EPA to human health — and the sickening consequences of America’s “omega imbalance” — see Omega-3 Facts & Sources and Omega-3/6 Balance: Hidden Health Risk.
As you’ll see on our Omega-3 Facts & Sources, health authorities worldwide recommend intakes of omega-3 DHA+EPA ranging from 250 to 500 mg per day, which is three to six times more than the average American gets from foods.
The average American’s shortage of seafood source omega-3s has particular consequences for women.
You can learn more about those consequences from reports in the Omega-3s & Women's Health section of our news archive, such as Fish and Omega-3s Linked to Breast Cancer Survival, Omega-3s Target Toughest Breast Tumors, Fish Alleviates Women’s Anxiety, Women Strengthened by Omega-3s, Pregnant Women Need More Omega-3s, and Omega-3s Curbed PMS.
German women's American-style diets fall far short on omega-3s
Researchers from Germany’s Leibniz University analyzed “omega-3 index” data from 446 middle-aged women, aged between 40 and 60 years (Gellert S et al 2017).
The omega-3 index is the percentage of omega-3 fats in a person’s red blood cell membranes.
An omega-3 index of less than 8% raises the risk for cardiovascular disease — with the greatest risk at 4% or lower — while an omega-3 index at or above 8% protects against cardiovascular disease.
Overall, the researchers found that more than 70% of the middle-aged women in the study were at greater risk of heart disease risk because of their low omega-3 status.
Worse, the team found that 97.3% of the women had omega-3 index levels below the 8% threshold needed to substantially reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
More specifically, they found that 62.8% of the women were at increased risk for heart disease (omega-3 index between 4% and 6%), while 9% were at the highest risk (omega-3 index below 4%).
Few people realize that heart disease is the biggest threat to American women, as it kills far more than breast cancer does.
And the situation in Germany is similar. As the German team wrote, “Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) … have a higher incidence in women than in men. While CVD occurs in 10.0% of the women aged 20 to 39 years, the frequency is 35.5% among women between 40 and 59 years.”
As in the United States, Germany’s official recommendations for omega-3 intake are only given for the short-chain kind found in plant foods (ALA).
That’s unfortunate, because, as the German team noted, “... it is known that the conversion rate from ALA to EPA and especially to DHA is very low.”
Australians’ American-style diet also leads to lack of omega-3s
Last year, researchers from University of Wollongong reported that the vast majority of Australians fail to meet the recommended daily intakes for long-chain omega-3s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they pinned that shortage to the nation’s preference for meat over fish.
The researchers’ analysis was based on data collected in the 2011-2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey.
The results showed that most Australians follow a typical western (i.e., American) diet that’s very high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3 fats, because — like Americans — Australians consume at least six times more meat than fish or seafood.
And as lead author Barbara Meyers, Ph.D., noted, fish and seafood on average provide 15 times more omega-3s than meat, which mostly contains omega-3 ALA from plant foods.
Importantly, the study found that half of Australian adults who take omega-3 fish oil supplements meet the recommended intake, compared with just 10% among those who didn’t take supplements.
Official Australian guidelines advise women to consume 430mg of long-chain omega-3s daily, and recommend that men get 610mg per day.
But the study showed that the median daily intake in Australia is just 126mg from food and 154mg from food and supplements combined.
Although some Australians were consuming higher quantities, the vast majority got much less than the median intake.
Worse, only 10% of childbearing Australian women met the recommended intake for omega-3 DHA — which is critical to brain, eye, and immune system development — during pregnancy and lactation.
Unfortunately, the situation is about the same in the United States.
Fortunately, the solution — enjoy more seafood and/or take omega-3 supplements — is very simple!