Omega-3 intakes among ‘vulnerable populations’ well below recommended levels: Study

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / redstallion
© Getty Images / redstallion
Intakes of omega-3 fatty acids across the US population are lower than recommended intake levels, showing the need to boost omega-3 consumption for all, but especially vulnerable groups like children and women of childbearing age.

Intakes of EPA+DHA (the two long chain omega-3 fatty acids) by pregnant women was found to be less than one-fifth of the recommended 520 mg/day EPA+DHA, according to data published in Nutrients​.

In addition, intakes for children aged 1-3 and 4-8 were only about 40% of the EPA+DHA intake recommended by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly known as the Institute of Medicine (IOM)).

Though it was just women and children with worrying low intakes, adults and seniors achieved less than 60% of the intake recommendation, reported scientists from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Arizona, The Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California Riverside.

“To our knowledge, this is the first analysis of the 2003–2014 NHANES data to assess for differences in EPA+DHA intake across the lifespan and between genders. We found that n-3 fatty acid intake across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts,”​ they wrote.

“Taken together, these findings demonstrate that low n-3 fatty acid intake is consistent among the US population and could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women).”

Advocating for EPA and DHA consumption increases

Commenting on the study’s findings, Ellen Schutt, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED)​, told us: “This study strengthens the argument about the importance of increasing omega-3 consumption in the US. Previous research​ has already shown that 95% of the US population is low in omega-3s and the present study helps further define the at-risk groups.

“GOED continues to advocate for increasing EPA and DHA consumption because of its public health implications across all life stages."

Study details

Omega-3 fish © Getty Images onairjiw
The study assessed fish intake, plus the intake of the omega-3s EPA, DHA and EPA+DHA. Image © Getty Images / onairjiw

The new study assessed data from the 2003–2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).  Intakes of fish and omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA+DHA were calculated for 45,347 people, ranging from toddlers and young children (aged 1 to 5) through to seniors (aged 55 and over).

The data revealed that toddlers, children, and adolescents had significantly lower omega-3 intakes than adults, and women had significantly lower intakes than men.

“Individuals taking an EPA/DHA-containing supplement had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking n-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use,” ​wrote the authors.

“While 0.6% of childbearing-age women reported taking an EPA/DHA-containing supplement, 7.3% of pregnant women reported use of EPA/DHA-containing supplements.

“As supplement use is associated with increased n-3 fatty acid intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

Adults and seniors

Average intakes in adults and seniors were also lower than the recommendations, noted the authors, with EPA+DHA intakes reaching only 16% and 21% of the 325 mg/day per 1000 kcal minimum recommended by the Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intake.

“Using the minimum recommendation of 200 mg/day of EPA+DHA given by many organizations, mean intake by adults and seniors in our study (with unadjusted daily intakes of 112.5 mg and 118.5 mg EPA+DHA, respectively) met less than 60% of the intake recommendation,”​ they added.

The authors also noted that recommendations do not stratify age groups, and instead group adolescents, adults and seniors, or adults and seniors, without considering the distinct functional roles that omega-3s play across the lifespan.

“Additional research evaluating the potential differing n-3 fatty acid physiological requirements across these age groups is needed for the development of evidence-based recommendations and may have implications for modulating risk factors to protect against chronic disease,” ​wrote the researchers.

Source: Nutrients
2019, 11​(1): 177, doi: 10.3390/nu11010177
“Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake by Age, Gender, and Pregnancy Status in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2014”
Authors: M. Thompson et al.

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