U.S. Physicians Have Less than the Recommended Blood Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

ARTICLE , NUTRITIONAL LIPIDS , HEALTH & NUTRITION , MARKETING 12/19/2017

9 min read

By:  Nathan Matusheski, Scientific Leader, DSM Nutritional Products 

There is an opportunity to improve physician awareness around the importance of omega-3s.

Summary

  • The benefits of omega-3s to heart and brain health are well established. However, populations across the world continue to show omega-3 deficiency. 
  • A new study has found that, within a group of US family physicians, most were unaware of their own omega-3 status, and only 5% had the recommended omega-3 levels in their blood. 
  • These findings present an opportunity to improve physician awareness of the importance of dietary omega-3 intake, so that they can facilitate patient communication and recommendations about omega-3 supplementation. 

Healthcare professionals are viewed by many individuals as being a leading source of health information. However, a new study has found that 95% of a group of US family physicians had an Omega-3 Index below 8%, a blood level of omega-3 fatty acids that has been suggested for cardioprotection.1 These findings present an opportunity to improve omega-3 levels in populations globally by raising awareness among physicians about their own omega-3 status, so they can make better-informed recommendations to patients. 

Healthcare professionals exhibit low omega-3 levels 

As a leading source of information about health for many individuals, physicians are viewed as being positioned to influence public attitudes towards omega-3s and encourage increased intake of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fatty acids. However, a new study, involving a group of US family physicians attending an annual medical conference, found that doctors themselves may overestimate their own omega-3 status, and only 5% had the recommended blood levels associated with cardioprotection.2 Blood results showed that the average Omega-3 Index (a commonly used quantitative test to determine EPA and DHA blood concentrations) among the group of physicians was 5.2% – above the levels typically observed in the general population, but below the recommended cardioprotective range of ≥8%.3,4

While only 5% of those tested had the recommended omega-3 fatty acid blood levels, 51% believed their omega-3 status was in the desirable range. This highlights a significant discrepancy between perceived and actual omega-3 status, suggesting that many family physicians may be unaware of their own personal omega-3 status and how it relates to daily dietary habits. Furthermore, 57% of the family physicians said they consumed less than the recommended two servings of fatty fish per week, and 78% reported using omega-3 supplements less than once a week. Unsurprisingly, the Omega-3 Index increased with reported fatty fish consumption and omega-3 supplement use in the research group. 

Impact on patients

The authors also discussed the influence these findings could have on consumers worldwide. For instance, physicians who were willing to have their omega-3 levels tested in the study were more likely to agree with affirmative statements about omega-3s and recommend them to their patients. This suggests that increased awareness of personal omega-3 status among physicians may be a valuable tool in facilitating patient communication and recommendations about omega-3 fatty acid intake.

Global omega-3 status 

It is estimated that 92.1 million adults living in the United States have at least one form of cardiovascular disease (CVD). By 2030, 43.9% of adults are expected to have some type of CVD, incurring an estimated $1.2 trillion in total direct and indirect healthcare costs.5 While omega-3s offer overall health benefits, the role of omega-3 fatty acids – specifically EPA and DHA – is particularly well established for supporting cardiovascular health. However, despite considerable research, a vast majority of the global population still has low omega-3 blood levels.6 This is especially true in the US, where almost 96% of the population has blood levels of EPA and DHA below what’s recommended to provide cardiovascular protection.7 Optimal levels of EPA and DHA can be reached by eating fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, several times a week. However, this may not be compatible with modern eating habits for many people around the world for a variety of reasons including busy lifestyles. For many, supplements may offer the most convenient and cost-effective way to ensure target levels are achieved regularly to optimize health.

Previous DSM research surveyed 11,000 consumers worldwide and identified that lack of education is one of the key barriers preventing people from taking omega-3 supplements. The report highlighted that the majority of consumers were familiar with omega-3s, but only a few appreciated the full scope of benefits that EPA and DHA fatty acids can provide across every life stage.8 

Find out more 

Omega-3s are the most researched micronutrient in the world, but there is still an ongoing need to raise awareness among healthcare professionals, consumers and government bodies that there is a deficiency among a high proportion of healthy adult populations globally. It is important to communicate effectively the impact of low and very low blood levels of EPA and DHA – not only in terms of the potential health implications for the individual, but also the economic burden on healthcare systems. Education is an integral part of this strategy. However, it is clear from this new study that this should begin with healthcare professionals, because only then can then positively influence their patients.

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For more information about omega-3 fatty acids and their benefits for both heart and brain health, download our whitepaper. 

References

1 N.V. Matusheski et al., ‘US family physicians overestimate personal omega-3 fatty acid biomarker status: Associations with fatty fish and omega-3 supplement intake,’ Current Developments in Nutrition, 2017, vol. 1, issue 12.

2 Ibid.

3 W.S. Harris et al., ‘The Omega-3 Index: a new risk factor for death from coronary heart disease?’ Prev Med., 2004, vol. 39, no. 1, p. 212-220.

4 W.S. Harris, ‘Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: A case for omega-3 index as a new risk factor.’ Pharmacol Red., 2007, vol. 55, no.3, p. 217-223. 

5 E.J. Benjamin et al., ‘Heart disease and stroke statistics – 2017 update: A report from the American Heart Association,’ Circulation, 2017.

6 K.D. Stark et al., ‘Global survey of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in the blood stream of healthy adults,’ Prog in Lipid Res., 2016, vol. 63, p. 132-52.

7 R.A. Murphy et al., ‘Suboptimal plasma long chain n-3 concentrations are common among adults in the United States, NHANES 2003-2004,’ Nutrients, 2015.

8 DSM: Omega-3 global usage & attitude study, 2012, 2015.

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