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Diabetes and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

While researchers and doctors alike have long known the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in a heart-healthy diet, there has been some debate as to whether or not omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for diabetics. Diabetes plagues people with high levels of triglycerides, a kind of fat carried through the bloodstream in packages known as lipoproteins. While omega-3 fatty acids do decrease the concentrations of triglycerides in the blood, the omega-3 fatty acids’ ability to decrease lipoproteins was questionable. If omega-3 fatty acids increased lipoprotein levels, they would in turn increase already high blood glucose levels, and, therefore, would prove detrimental to diabetics.

However, recent international studies have now solved this conundrum: omega-3 fatty acids do, in fact, lower lipoprotein levels without negatively affecting glucose levels. Consequently, omega-3 fatty acids have become significant in maintaining health for those suffering from various types of diabetes.

Research Findings on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Researchers at Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Paris, France conducted a study on 10 men suffering from type II diabetes. Over a 4-month period, half of the participants were given fish oil supplements (a pill form of the omega-3 fatty acid) and the other half was given a placebo. Ultimately, the group taking omega-3 supplements experienced a decrease in both triglyceride and lipoprotein levels without harming their overall blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

At Federico II University in Naples, Italy, researchers divided 16 subjects with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) into 2 groups, giving half the omega-3 fatty acid supplement and the other half a placebo. Again, the group given the omega-3 supplement significantly decreased its triglyceride, lipoprotein, and cholesterol levels without adversely affecting blood glucose levels.

Research has proven that diabetics can improve their health by incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into their diet.

Increasing Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake
Because the human body does not naturally produce omega-3 fatty acids, finding the right dietary supplement is key. Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in fatty, cold-water fish, including salmon, tuna, herring, halibut, and mackerel. Generally, non-farmed fish tend to be a richer source of omega-3 fatty acids than their farmed counterparts. The wild variety, particularly Alaskan salmon, provides more of this vital chemical with less saturated fat due to its greater consumption of natural algae and other plant life. According to the American Heart Association, people should eat salmon or tuna at least twice a week.

Omega-3 versus Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential to balancing our intake of omega-6 fatty acids, which are commonly found in eggs, baked goods, most vegetable oils, and margarine. When choosing based on taste, people generally opt for foods rich in omega-6 rather than omega-3 fatty acids. New research suggests that an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, or linolenic acid, possibly increases the production of prostaglandins, which are known to promote cancer.

As Dr. Ann Kulze, a primary care physician in Charleston, S.C., explains, “It's extremely important to achieve a balance between the two [fatty acids], both to promote optimum weight loss and general health status."

Kulze elaborated, “Omega-3s oppose the effects of omega-6 and are anti-inflammatory, anti-blood clotting, and anti-cellular growth . . . When diets are deficient in omega-3s, a healthy balance is impossible to achieve."

Ensuring a Balance
Unfortunately, the call for more fatty fish doesn’t agree with everyone’s palate. Merely adding fish, like a white fish or a fried variety, will do nothing for your omega-3 intake but can increase your omega-6 intake. Alternatively, foods such as canola oil, wheat germ, and walnuts are also excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, even with dietary modifications, achieving a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can still be elusive. Kulze therefore recommends that her patients take oral fish oil supplements to ensure the balance.

“Philosophically, I believe people should try to get as many of their nutrients as possible from real food,” Kulze explained. Although the body absorbs natural food better than supplements, Kulze admitted, “Most people don’t have success with that recommendation.” She also warned that you should consult a physician or nutritionist before adding any supplement to your diet.


Larson, H. R. (2004). Fish oils and diabetes. International Health News Database.

Lee, M.D., & Thomas, G. (2005, February 1). Animal studies. Fats, Fish Oil and Omega-3-Fatty Acids.

NCERx. (2004, December 28) Fine-tune your intake of fatty acid. Diabetes & Diabetics.
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