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Eating Fatty Fish May Prevent Heart Disease and Diabetes

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Eating omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that are associated with obesity, according to a new study of Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska. The study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in collaboration with the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, was published online March 23 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The Yup’ik consume 20 times more omega-3 fats from fish than the average American, according to the FHCRC report. Researchers analyzed data from 330 Yup’ik Eskimos, who reside in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region of southwest Alaska. While 70 percent of the Yup’ik population is overweight or obese, they show fewer risk factors for heart disease and have a lower prevalence of diabetes than the total U.S. population.

Only 3.3 percent of Yup’ik Eskimos are diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. The national rate is 7.7 percent, stated FHCRC, and the overall American Indian and Alaska Native population aged 20 years or older runs at 14.2 percent, according to 2005 statistics by the U.S. Department of Human and Health Service’s Office of Minority Health, published in September 2010.

Researchers concluded that fish oils may prevent obesity-related illness. “While genetic, lifestyle and dietary factors may account for this difference, it is reasonable to ask, based on our findings, whether the lower prevalence of diabetes in this population might be attributed, at least in part, to their high consumption of omega-3-rich fish,” said lead author Zeina Makhoul, a postdoctoral researcher in the Cancer Prevention Program of the Hutchinson Center’s Public Health Sciences Division.

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Researchers concentrated on fats found in salmon, sardines and other fatty fish: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), finding that in participants with low blood levels of these fats had higher risk of obesity-triggered heart disease, which they measured by triglycerides and C-reactive protein, a measure of overall body inflammation.

Still, Makhoul does not advise people to suddenly add extremely high levels of omega-3 fatty acids to their diets. “There are good reasons to increase intake of fatty fish, such as the well-established association of fish intake with reduced heart disease risk,” Makhoul said. “But we have learned from many other studies that nutritional supplementation at very high doses is more often harmful than helpful.”

A randomized clinical trial should test whether increasing omega-3 fat intake significantly reduces the harmful effects of obesity, before researchers make a public health recommendation, FHCRC stated.