A new study of Yup’ik Eskimos in Alaska, who on average consume 20 times more omega-3 fatty acids from fish than the rest of the U.S. population, suggests that a high intake of these fats helps prevent obesity-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and conducted in collaboration with the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the study was published online in the 23 March edition of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers analyzed data from a community-based study of 330 people living in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region of southwest Alaska, 70 percent of whom were overweight or obese. Researchers found that in participants with low blood levels of DHA and EPA, obesity strongly increased both blood triglycerides (a blood lipid abnormality) and overall body inflammation. Both conditions increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

While Yup’ik Eskimos have overweight/obesity levels similar to those in the United States overall, their prevalence of type 2 diabetes is significantly lower, 3.3 percent versus 7.7 percent, leading researchers to believe the lower occurrence of diabetes could be attributed to high consumption of omega-3-rich fish.

Study participants provided blood samples and health information via in-person interviews and questionnaires. Diet was assessed by asking participants what they ate in the past 24 hours and asking them to keep a food log for three consecutive days.

“Because Yup’ik Eskimos have a traditional diet that includes large amounts of fatty fish and have a prevalence of overweight or obesity that is similar to that of the general U.S. population, this offered a unique opportunity to study whether omega-3 fats change the association between obesity and chronic disease risk,” said lead author Zeina Makhoul. “Interestingly, we found that obese persons with high blood levels of omega-3 fats had triglyceride and CRP concentrations that did not differ from those of normal-weight persons. It appeared that high intakes of omega-3-rich seafood protected Yup’ik Eskimos from some of the harmful effects of obesity.”

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