omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids diabetes

Omega-3 fatty acids are a hot topic in the field of nutrition. They are found naturally in some foods, added to some foods and taken as supplements by some.  Are you aware that there are recommendations made in 2013 by the American Diabetes Association on Dietary Omega-3 fatty acids for people with diabetes? This week's blog will discuss what omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are, the three guidelines made by the American Diabetes Association for omega-3 fatty acids and examples of foods that are high in the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

What are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids? 

The human body must have fat provided in the diet to maintain life. There are certain fats that are needed that the body is not able to synthesize, thus they must be provided in the diet. These fats are called essential fatty acids and there are two:

1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid

2. Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid 

Omega-3 fatty acids

The body takes ALA and synthesizes the omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in only limited amounts so it is therefore recommended to get additional EPA and DHA in the diet. Alpha-linolenic acid is found in plants and EPA and DHA are found in the fat of fish. Major functions of omega-3 fatty acids are to help reduce inflammation (thus it is thought to be beneficial to help prevent some chronic diseases). It is also needed to support the growth and development of the brain and body, and to reduce heart disease. (1) 

Omega-6 fatty acids

Linoleic acid as mentioned above is essential to consume in the diet.  The omega-6 fatty acid Arachidonic acid (AA), is also essential if it there is not enough linoleic acid to make it from LA. Omega-6 fatty acids are needed with omega-3 fatty acids to help with brain function and to support growth (skin, hair and bone). It is also needed to maintain our reproductive systems. Some of the omega-6 fatty acids are thought to promote inflammation so beware. (2)

In the majority of diets consumed by Americans, individuals consume about 10 times the amount of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Research scientists make general recommendations for most people to eat more omega-3 fatty acids and less omega-6 fatty acids. (3,4) 

Recommendation number one from the American Diabetes Association 

Omega-3 (EPA, DHA) supplements are not recommended for cardiovascular prevention or treatment. (5) As mentioned above, omega-3 fatty acids are thought to be beneficial to prevent heart disease but a meta-analysis of 20 randomized control trials with over 68,000 patients concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplements did not significantly lower mortality, acute myocardial infarction, sudden death or stroke. (6) You should discuss with your medical team whether or not the use of supplements is right for you.

Recommendation number two from the American Diabetes Association

Eat more foods that contain EPA, DHA and ALA. This may positively affect lipoprotein levels and offer protection against cardiovascular disease. (5)

Recommendation number three from the American Diabetes Association

Eat fish (**) at least two times a week. Fatty fish are especially encouraged. (5)
(**Clara’s note: as long as there are no allergies or contra-indications)
Eating fish is also recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to the AHA, each serving of fish is equal to 3.5 ounces of cooked fish or ¾ cup of flaked fish. Be aware, however, pregnant women and children need to avoid eating fish that may contain high levels of mercury, which are generally the larger fish such as swordfish. View a list published by The Natural Resources Defense Fund.    

The Food and Drug Administration recommends a limit of 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish per week of fish that may possibly have lower levels of mercury for pregnant women and children.  Ask your doctor about specific recommendations for consuming fish. In some areas, water that fish are caught in may contain toxins that may cause harm to individuals. (7) 

What foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids?

  1. Foods high in alpha-linolenic acid are flaxseed. canola, soy, perilla, and walnut oils (8) 
  2. Certain kinds of fish are higher in DHA and EPA than others. For a breakdown of the amounts in different fish sources, click here: 
  3. Plant sources that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include, flax, walnut and canola oil, and chia seeds. (9, 10)
  4. What foods are high in omega-6 fatty acids?
  5. Sources of omega-6 fatty acids that are abundant in our food supply include, the following oils: safflower, corn, cottonseed and soy. (11) 

Can eating a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids be harmful?

As you can see from reading this article, the American Diabetes Association does not recommend the use of omega-3 supplements for cardiac protection in diabetes. The University of Maryland medical center provides a list of medications including some diabetes medicines that may interfere with omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Talk to your medical team about increasing omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Ask how you can do so safely to enjoy the benefits of eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.