A new study from Penn State found that the major plant-based version of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease for those who don’t eat seafood.
They found that consuming ALA that is found in plant-based foods like walnuts and flaxseeds was linked to a 10% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20% reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease.
They also found evidence that for people who do eat seafood, they could get extra benefits from eating plant-based omega-3s.
The study is published in Advances in Nutrition and was conducted by Penny Kris-Etherton et al.
Previous research has linked omega-3s with a lower risk of heart disease. However, this conclusion was based on a large evidence base from marine-derived omega-3s, and there was less evidence for the benefits of ALA.
In the study, the team analyzed data from previous studies to evaluate the effects of ALA on heart disease and heart disease risk factors like blood pressure and inflammation.
While some of the observational studies relied on the participants reporting how often they ate certain foods to determine how much ALA they were consuming, others used biomarkers—a way of measuring levels of ALA in the blood—as a more accurate measure.
The researchers found that ALA had beneficial effects on reducing atherogenic lipids and lipoproteins—for example, total cholesterol, low density-lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides—as well as blood pressure and inflammation.
This could help explain ALA’s benefits to heart health.
They were able to find evidence supporting current dietary guidelines that ALA should provide about 0.6%–1% of total energy in a day, which is about 1.1 grams a day for women and 1.6 grams a day for men
It can be incorporated into the diet with foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and cooking oils such as canola and soybean oils.
These recommendations are equal to about 1/2 ounce of walnuts or just under one teaspoon of flaxseed oil.
The researchers said that future studies are needed to help better understand the effects of ALA on other major chronic diseases.
Recent studies have found one cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day may prevent heart disease, and that two dietary supplements may prevent heart disease, stroke, which are highly relevant to the current study.
In a recent review study published in eClinical Medicine and from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, researchers found that EPA in omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart health.
For decades, there has been great interest in whether omega-3 fatty acids can lower rates of cardiovascular events.
Many studies of omega-3 fatty acid supplements that combine EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have had mixed results.
In the study, the team did a systematic review and meta-analysis of 38 studies of omega-3 fatty acids, including trials of EPA therapy and EPA+DHA therapy. In total, these trials included more than 149,000 participants.
Overall, omega-3 fatty acids reduced heart disease mortality and improved heart health.
Importantly, they found a much greater reduction in heart disease risk in studies of EPA alone rather than EPA+DHA supplements. The findings support a robust and consistent benefit of EPA.
The researchers note that there are crucial biological differences between EPA and DHA—while both are considered omega-3 fatty acids, they have different chemical properties that influence their stability and strength of the effect that they can have on cholesterol molecules and cell membranes.
No trials to date have studied the effects of DHA alone on cardiovascular outcomes.
This study provides reassurance about the role of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically prescription EPA. It should encourage researchers to explore further the heart effects of EPA across different clinical settings.
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