November 09, 2017
3 min read

Q&A: Omega-3 fatty acid intake remains low despite known benefits

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Regan L. Bailey

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and seafood have previously been associated with CVD protection. Regan L. Bailey, PhD, MPH, RD, associate professor in the department of nutrition science at Purdue University, and former nutritional epidemiologist at the Office of Dietary Supplements at the NIH, and colleagues compared populations from Germany and the United States on their knowledge and beliefs of omega-3 fatty acids in a study published in Nutrients.

Although more than half of adults from both countries said they believe that omega-3 fatty acids benefit brain and heart health, the mean omega-3 index, an erythrocyte-based biomarker linked to CVD risk, was only 4.3% in the U.S. and 5.5% in Germany, putting 99% of both cohorts in categories at intermediate or high risk for CVD, Bailey and colleagues found.

Cardiology Today spoke with Bailey about the inconsistency between knowledge and intake of omega-3 fatty acids and what can be done to improve it.


Question: What do the findings add to the knowledge base?

Answer: The take-home message from this study is that most people know the right foods to eat to get their omega-3s and they know that they’re important for health, but almost all of the people in the study did not have omega-3s in the optimal range for CVD prevention. To me, that speaks to the need for nutrition and health professionals to talk to patients and clients about consuming enough fatty fish and if they’re not consuming fatty fish or fortified foods that they may need to consider an omega-3 dietary supplement.


Q: Do the findings have any implication for clinical practice?

A: This means that health care practitioners need to be more aware of the omega-3 index and encouraging clients and patients to have enough of omega-3s in their diet, if not from the diet, then may consider dietary supplements or fortified foods.


Q: What do you think is contributing to the decreased intake of omega-3 fatty acids?

A: This is a cross-sectional study, so we don’t have longitudinal data to say that there’s a decrease, but what we know from this study is that we’re not getting enough. This study was in people who were not taking a dietary supplement, so these are people who thought they were getting enough from their diet, but they really weren’t.


Q: What type of omega-3 fatty acid intake is better: eating fish or supplements?
A: We always recommend foods first in the field of nutrition, and a lot of the epidemiological data that looked at CVD and health looked at fish intake. We want to recommend that people have two fatty fish meals per week. That’s the recommendation, but if they’re not supplementing like the people in our study, they may need to consider a dietary supplement.


Q: What do you think can be done to increase Americans’ intake of omega-3 fatty acids?

A: It’s important to talk to people about the difference between consuming omega-3 fatty acids and how that differs from their precursors. We can form omega-3 fatty acids in our bodies from things like flax and walnuts and foods like that, but the conversion is very inefficient, so our bodies are not very good at doing that. Therefore, we recommend that we focus on the two fatty fish meals per week, and if people can’t do that for economic reasons or access or affordability, then to consider a supplement or the use of foods that are fortified with omega-3s like some juices, eggs and milks.


Q: What further research would you like to see done in this area?
This study that we conducted was in adults who don’t use dietary supplements. A nice follow-up would be to look at the omega-3 index in people who are already using omega-3 supplements. Because there’s such variety in the kinds of products that are in the market, I’d like to do a follow-up study and look at supplement users and their omega-3 index.


Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A: The most interesting take-home message from this is that there’s a disconnect between knowledge and practice. We often think that when we see problems in nutrition, that we just need to provide more education, but in this study, we found that people really had that education. They knew that omega-3s were important and they knew where to get them. They just weren’t doing it. So, we need to have a better way to help consumers meet these dietary recommendations other than just providing education. – by Darlene Dobkowski


Thuppal SV, et al. Nutrients. 2017;doi:10.3390/nu9090930.

For more information:

Regan L. Bailey, PhD, MPH, RD, can be reached at

Disclosures: Bailey reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.