Omega-6 Fatty Acids: Can They Help Prevent Heart Disease?

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Move over olive oil, it's time to make room at the table for other oils!

New research published in Circulation indicates that -- after analyzing nearly 70,000 individuals in over a dozen countries -- people with high levels of linoleic acid levels in the body had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease. The most common polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid.

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids had previously been thrown under the bus because it was once believed that high intakes of omega-6 fatty acids increased the risk for chronic illness by promoting inflammation. Studies done on human subjects have not found a link between a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. In fact, omega-6 fats possess beneficial effects on lipid and glucose metabolism. The essential fatty acid linoleic acid is frequently linked with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Data from 30 population-based studies of over 68,600 adults from 13 different countries was evaluated in order to reach that conclusion. The Finnish studies were from the University of Eastern Finland’s Kuopia Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD) and the Metabolic Syndrome in Men Study (METSIM). Older studies were not included in the meta-analysis, however. Pre-defined criteria was used in each set of data and new analysis was completed. This process helps establish a basis to compare the studies and reduces the impact of confounding variables.

Study subjects were aged between 49 and 77 years old at the start of the study and over 15,000 of them developed some form of cardiovascular disease during the follow-up period. The research found a link between a high linoleic acid level and reduced risk for ischemic stroke and cardiovascular disease.

One of the study’s strengths was that it did not rely on the subject’s memory or diet recall. Omega-6 fatty acids from blood or tissue biomarkers were used. Consumption of linoleic acid from food greatly affects the level of linoleic acid in the body. The best sources of this fatty acid include vegetable oils, plant-based margarine, nuts and seeds.

The next time your client complains about the high price of extra virgin olive oil, educate them that other plant oils have health benefits. They can use corn oil, which has a neutral taste and is great for salad dressing or sautéing vegetables. Soybean and safflower oil are also high in linoleic acid and can be used for cooking or baking. Include pumpkin or sunflower seeds in a salad or trail mix. Replace butter with vegetable oil-based margarines that are low in saturated and trans-fat. It’s best to get a mix of different healthy fats in our diets to reduce risk for disease.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

Marklun, Matti, et. al, Biomarkers of Dietary Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Incident Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality: An Individual-Level Pooled Analysis of 30 Cohort Studies.

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