A diet rich in the fatty acids protects against later onset of the disease
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids cuts in half kids’ risk of developing type I diabetes, according to a new study. “This is the first study to show this type of association with childhood diet,” says Jill Norris, PhD, lead author and epidemiologist at the University of Colorado at Denver. “It provides exciting evidence that it may be feasible to have a nutritional intervention against the disease.”
Since type I diabetes is often inherited, researchers looked at high-risk kids — those who had a high-risk genotype or had a diabetic parent or sibling. They found that children who ate fish, nuts or other omega-3 fatty acid sources were 55% less likely to become diabetic.
In type I diabetes, the body makes antibodies to attack its own beta-cells, the insulin-producers in the pancreas. It often hits patients in early childhood or adolescence. But before blood sugar runs high and diabetes is diagnosed, there’s a phase that can last from months to years when those auto-antibodies accumulate in the blood. This stage is known as islet autoimmunity (IA). “IA is very predictive of the disease,” explains Dr Norris.
Researchers ran blood tests on 1,770 high-risk children, once a year between 1994 and 2006, to check IA levels. Parents were enlisted to monitor their kids’ diets and report their omega-3 fatty acid intake, also on an annual basis, through food frequency questionnaires. The more kids consumed omega-3s, the less they developed IA, the study found.
But since parents may not be the most accurate way to get information, researchers decided to measure omega-3 status separately, says Dr Norris. So they looked at the omega-3 fatty acids in the red blood cell membranes of 244 kids.
Cell membranes contain chains of fatty acids that help them keep their structure and fluidity. “The more you eat omega-3 fatty acids, the more they get incorporated into the cell membranes,” explains Dr Norris. The children with the highest omega-3s had a 37% reduced chance of becoming diabetic. “It’s a nice corroboration with our dietary report,” says Dr Norris.
Fifty-eight kids in the study developed IA. Of those, 45 went on to become diabetic. These kids were all in the lowest omega-3 intake group.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish, soybeans and walnuts among other foods. Animal studies had long suggested these molecules played a role in preventing diabetes. A Norwegian study showed that kids with diabetes were less likely to have been given cod liver oil as infants — but cod liver oil contains both fatty acids and Vitamin D.
The JAMA study is the first human study to establish a clear connection between omega-3 FAs and diabetes, say the authors. What’s more, the risk reduction applied even when the omega-3 came from plants and legumes, not just fish. Exactly how they prevent it is still a mystery, admits Dr Norris. “But we think it’s due to anti-inflammatory properties in the omega-3 fatty acids.” An inflammatory response is part of the early stages of diabetes.
It’s still not known if the effect of omega-3 on IA is lasting, or if at-risk kids would have to keep their fatty acid intake high all their lives. So it’s still too early to start recommending fish oil supplements, says Dr Norris. “But evidence is out there to pursue the exact mechanism of this process and feasibility of a prevention,” she adds.
Type 1 diabetes is is the third most common chronic disease in kids and cuts their life expectancy by as much as 15 years. Insulin injections help control blood sugar levels in patients, but nothing, until now, was thought capable of preventing the disease. JAMA, Sept. 26, 2007
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