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Omega-3 May Lower Type 1 Diabetes Risk

Diet Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Help Body Fight Inflammation That Leads to Diabetes
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 25, 2007 -- Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fats may help keep high-risk children from developing type 1 diabetes, early research suggests.

Dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids was associated with a lower incidence of autoantibodies in the blood that signal the immune system to attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation is believed to play a major role in the development of type 1 diabetes through destruction of these insulin-producing cells.

"The thinking is that omega-3 may increase the body's ability to fight the inflammation that leads to type 1 diabetes," researcher Jill M. Norris, MPH, PHD, tells WebMD.

The University of Colorado professor of preventive medicine adds that the findings, while intriguing, do not prove omega-3-rich foods protect against type 1 diabetes.

The study appears in the Sept. 27 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.

"This is a preliminary study," she says. "We really can't make dietary recommendations based on these findings."

Omega-3, Diabetes Research

In adults, omega-3 rich diets are believed to lower cardiovascular risk, and in babies the fatty acid is believed to boost brain development.

A 2003 study from Norway was one of the first human trials to suggest a protective role for omega-3 fatty acids in type 1 diabetes. Researchers reported a lower incidence of omega-3-rich cod liver oil supplementation during infancy in children with diabetes, compared to children without the disease.

The newly published study included 1,770 children -- from birth to age 3 -- at increased risk for developing type 1 diabetes, followed for an average of six years. These children either had a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes or had genetic tests that showed increased risk.

Omega-3 intake was determined through annual food-frequency questionnaires. Among other things, parents were asked how often their children ate canned tuna and oily fish like salmon or mackerel. They were also asked about the oil they used for home cooking.

Oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are among the best food sources of omega-3s, but dark green vegetables and canola oil, sunflower oil, and flaxseed oil are also good sources.

Increasingly, eggs, breads, juices, and other foods are being fortified with omega-3s.

Red blood cells from 244 children in the study were also tested for fatty acid composition to confirm the questionnaire findings.

The research confirmed that children who reportedly had higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids also had less evidence of the autoantibodies associated with progression to type 1 diabetes.

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