Is Low Omega-3 Intake As Bad For You As Smoking?

What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

deadWe already know that smoking is one of the worst things we can do to our bodies. It dramatically increases our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It also leads to premature death. People who smoke regularly die 5 years earlier than those who don’t.

That is the bad news. The good news is that smoking is what is called a “modifiable risk factor”. Simply put, that means it is a risk factor we are in control of. The message has been clear for years.

  • If you don’t smoke, keep it that way.
  • If you do smoke, stop. If you are a smoker, quitting isn’t easy, but it is worth it. The damage caused by smoking can largely be reversed if you stay off cigarettes long enough.

Obesity and diabetes are also modifiable risk factors that have a huge effect on the risk of both heart disease and premature death. People with diabetes die 4 years earlier than those without diabetes. But obesity and diabetes are harder for most people to reverse than smoking.

Diet is another modifiable risk factor, but, in general, its effect on the risk of heart disease and premature death is not as great as smoking and diabetes. But what if there were one component of diet that had huge effect on both heart disease and premature death?

The long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) might just fill that bill. We already know they significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (see below), but could they also help us live longer? This study (MI McBurney et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published online June 16, 2021) was designed to answer that question.

Metabolism 101: What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important?

professor owlClinical studies on the benefits of omega-3s have been plagued by the question of how to best measure the omega-3 status of the participants.

  • You can ask the participants to fill out a dietary survey and calculate how many omega-3-rich foods they are eating, but:
    • Dietary recall is notoriously inaccurate. People don’t remember everything they ate and have a hard time estimating portion sizes.
  • You can measure omega-3 fatty acids in the blood, but:
    • Blood levels are transient. Omega-3 fatty acids enter the bloodstream from the intestine and then disappear from blood as they are taken up by the cells.
    • Different forms of omega-3s (esters versus acetate, for example) are absorbed from the intestine and taken up by cells at different rates.
  • You can measure the omega-3 content of cellular membranes. This is the best assay for omega-3 status because:
    • The long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) that have the biggest effect on heart disease risk accumulate in our cell membranes.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential (our bodies can’t make them). That means the omega-3 content of our cell membranes reflect the omega-3 content of our diet. This is one of the cases where the saying, “We are what we eat”, is literally true.
    • The omega-3 content of our cell membranes is relatively stable. It reflects the omega-3 content of our diet over the last few months.
  • In theory, you could measure the omega-3 content of cell membranes from any tissues in the body, but red blood cells can easily be obtained by a simple blood draw, so they are the tissue of choice.

A group lead by Dr. William H Harris standardized this measurement by creating something called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA in red blood cell membranes.

It turns out that the Omega-3 Index is an excellent indicator of heart disease risk.

  • An Omega-3 Index of less than 4% is associated with a high risk of heart disease.
  • An Omega-3 Index of more than 8% is associated with a low risk of heart disease.

But could a low Omega-3 Index also be associated with an increased risk of premature death? This is what the current study was designed to find out.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the ongoing Framingham Offspring Heart Study.

To put this statement into perspective, the original Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 in Framingham Massachusetts with the goal of identifying the factors that contributed to heart disease. It was one of the first major studies to identify the role of saturated fats, elevated blood cholesterol, and elevated blood triglycerides on heart disease risk.

The study is continuing today with the second and third generation descendants of the original study participants. It has also been broadened to include other diseases and additional risk factors, such as the Omega-3 Index.

This study selected 2240 participants from the Framingham Offspring study who had no heart disease and also had Omega-3 Index measurements at the beginning of the study. The study then followed them for 11 years. The goal of the study was to compare the Omega-3 Index with the two most potent risk factors for heart disease (smoking and diabetes) in predicting the risk of premature death.

The characteristics of the participants at the beginning of the 11-year study were:

  • 43% male, 57% female.
  • Average age = 65.
  • 3% were smokers.
  • 8% were diabetic.
  • Average Omega-3-Index = 5.8%. This is slightly higher than the American average of ~5%.

Is Low Omega-3-Intake As Bad For You As Smoking?

omega-3 supplements and heart healthThe participants in the study were divided into 5 quintiles based on their Omega-3 Index.

  • The 20% of the group in the lowest quintile had an Omega-3 Index of <4.2%.
  • The 20% of the group in the highest quintile had an Omega-3 Index of >6.8%.

First, the scientists running the study did a direct comparison of the top three risk factors on the risk of premature death. Here is what they found.

  • The group with the lowest average Omega-3 Index died 4.74 years earlier than the group with the highest average Omega-3 Index.
  • Smokers died 4.73 years earlier than non-smokers.
  • People with diabetes died 3.90 years earlier than people without diabetes.

That means low omega-3 intake was just as bad for the participants in this study as smoking. Even the authors of the study were surprised by this result. They had expected omega-3 fatty acids to be beneficial, but they had not expected them to be as beneficial as not smoking.

Because omega-3 fatty acid intake and smoking were the two most potent risk factors for premature death, the authors looked at the interaction between the two. They found that the predicted 11-year survival was:

  • 85% for non-smokers with high omega-3 intake.
  • 71% for either…
    • Smokers with high omega-3 intake, or…
    • Non-smokers with low omega-3 intake.
  • Only 47% for smokers with low omega-3 intake.

Simply put, this study predicts if you were a 65-year-old smoker with low omega-3 intake, you could almost double your chances of surviving another 11 years by giving up smoking and increasing your omega-3 intake.

In the words of the authors, “Smoking and omega-3 intake seem to be the most easily modified risk factors [for premature death]…Dietary choices that change the Omega-3 index may prolong life.”

The Bottom Line

We know that smoking is deadly, but could low intake of omega-3 fatty acids be just as deadly?

A recent study compared omega-3 intake with the two most potent risk factors (smoking and diabetes) in predicting the risk of premature death. Here is what it found.

  • The group with the lowest average omega-3 intake died 4.74 years earlier than the group with the highest average omega-3 intake.
  • Smokers died 4.73 years earlier than non-smokers.
  • People with diabetes died 3.90 years earlier than people without diabetes.

That means high omega-3 intake was just as beneficial for the participants in this study as not smoking. Even the authors of the study were surprised by this result. They had expected omega-3 fatty acids to be beneficial, but they had not expected them to be as beneficial as not smoking.

Because omega-3 fatty acid intake and smoking were the two most potent risk factors for premature death, the authors looked at the interaction between the two. They found that the predicted 11-year survival was:

  • 85% for non-smokers with high omega-3 intake.
  • 71% for either…
    • Smokers with high omega-3 intake, or…
    • Non-smokers with low omega-3 intake.
  • Only 47% for smokers with low omega-3 intake.

Simply put, this study predicts if you were a 65-year-old smoker with low omega-3 intake, you could almost double your chances of surviving another 11 years by giving up smoking and increasing your omega-3 intake.

In the words of the authors, “Smoking and omega-3 intake seem to be the most easily modified risk factors [for premature death]…Dietary choices that change the Omega-3 index may prolong life.”

For more details about this study, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Do High Protein Diets Cause Cancer?

How Much Protein Should We Eat?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Animal Protein FoodsThe recent headlines suggesting that high protein diets may cause cancer, diabetes and premature death in middle aged Americans are downright scary. You are probably asking yourself:

  • “Is this new information?”
  • “Does this apply to me?”
  • “Should I radically change what I eat?”

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I will address each of these questions.

Do High Protein Diets Cause Cancer?

The study in question (Levine et al., Cell Metabolism, 19: 407-417, 2014) suggested that high protein diets were associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes and premature death in Americans in the 50-65 age range. I will touch on all three of these observations, but it is the increased risk of cancer that generated the most headlines – and the most concern (The consequences of diabetes take years to manifest, and death seem to be a more distant concern for most people. Cancer is immediate and personal).

The study looked at 6,381 adults aged 50 and older (average age 65) from the NHANES III data base. (NHANES is a comprehensive database collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that consists of surveys and physical examinations and is designed to be representative of the health and nutritional status of the US population.)

The data collected consisted of a single diet questionnaire conducted when the subjects were enrolled in the study. Based on the diet questionnaire the authors of the study divided the group into those with low protein intake (<10% of calories), those with moderate protein intake (10-19% of calories) and those with high protein intake (>20% of calories). Overall death and mortality from various diseases over the next 18 years was obtained by linking the NHANES data with the National Death Index.

Based on preliminary data suggesting that the age of the population might influence the results (I won’t go into details here) the authors of the study decided to subdivide the dataset into people aged 50-65 and people over 65. When they did that, they came to the following conclusions:

1)     In the 50-65 age group diets high in animal protein were associated with a:

  • 45% increase in overall mortality
  • 4-fold increase in cancer death risk
  • 4-fold increase in diabetes death risk.

Diets with moderate protein intake were associated with intermediate increases in risk. Surprisingly, there was no increase in cardiovascular disease risk.

Protein Shakes2)     When they looked at people in the 50-65 age group consuming diets high in vegetable protein:

  • the increased overall mortality and increased in cancer mortality disappeared
  • the increased diabetes mortality was still seen.

3)     In the 65+ age group high protein diets were associated with a:

  • 28% decrease in overall mortality
  • 60% decrease in cancer mortality.

The increased risk of diabetes related deaths was still observed. The authors did not distinguish between animal and vegetable protein in the over 65 age group.

All of that may seem to be a bit too complicated. At the risk of gross oversimplification I would summarize their message as follows:

  • Diets high in animal protein may be bad for you if you are in the 50-65 age range, but might actually be good for you if you are over 65.
  • Diets high in vegetable protein appear to be good for anyone over age 50 (The study didn’t look at younger age groups).

Is This New Information?

Let’s start by assuming that the conclusions of the authors are correct (more about that below).

When you boil their message down to its simplest components, the information isn’t particularly novel.

  • The idea that vegetable proteins may be better for you than animal proteins has been around for decades. There are a number of studies suggesting that diets high in animal protein increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and overall death – although it is still not clear whether it is the animal protein itself or some other characteristic of populations consuming mostly animal protein that is the culprit.
  • Evidence has been accumulating over the past decade or so that protein needs increase as we age, so it is not surprising that this study found high protein diets to be beneficial for those of us over age 65.

What Do Other Experts Say?

ScientistSince this study has been released it has been roundly criticized by other experts in the field. Let me sum up their four main criticisms and add one of my own.

1)     The protein intake data were based on a single dietary survey taken at the beginning of an 18 year study. The authors stated that a single dietary survey has been shown to be a pretty accurate indicator of what an individual is eating at the time of the survey. However, it is problematic to assume that everyone’s diet remained the same over an 18 year period.

2)     The choice of less than 10% of calories from protein is also problematic. According to the Institute of Medicine standards anything below 10% is defined as inadequate protein intake, which can have long term health consequences of its own.

More importantly, only 7% of the population being studied (437 individuals) fell into this group. This is the baseline group (or put another way, the denominator for all of the comparisons). The conclusions of this study were based on comparing the other two groups to this baseline, and there were too few individuals in this group to be confident that the baseline is accurate.

This does not necessarily invalidate the study, but it does decrease confidence in the size of the reported effect – so forget the reported numbers like 45% increase in mortality and 4-fold increase in cancer deaths. They probably aren’t accurate.

3)     The number of people in this study who died from diabetes was exceedingly small (68 total) and most of them already had diabetes when the study began. The experts concluded that the numbers were simply too low to draw any conclusions about protein intake and diabetes related deaths, and I agree with them.

4)     While the study controlled for fat intake and carbohydrate intake, it did not control for weight. That is a huge omission. Overweight is associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes and death, and vegetarians tend to weigh less than non-vegetarians.

5)     I would add that there are many other differences between vegetarians and non- vegetarians that could account for most of the differences reported between diets high in animal and vegetable protein. For example:

  • Vegetarians tend to be more health conscious and thus they tend to exercise more, consume more fiber, consume more fruits and vegetables, consume less fried food, and consume less processed and convenience foods – all of which are associated with decreased risk of cancer, diabetes and death.

The Bottom Line:

This is not a particularly strong study. Nor is it particularly novel. In fact, when you strip away the scary headlines and focus on what the data really show, the conclusions aren’t that different from what nutrition experts have been saying for years.

1)     This study suggests that if you are in the 50-65 age range, diets high in animal protein may not be good for you (this study focused on increased risk of cancer death and overall mortality. Other studies have suggested that diets high in animal protein may increase the risk of cardiovascular death).

This is not a new idea. These data are consistent with a number of other studies. However, none of these studies adequately assess whether the increased risk is from the animal protein alone or from other characteristics of populations that consume a lot of animal protein.

2)     This study also suggests that diets high in vegetable protein do not increase either cancer risk or all cause mortality. That’s also not new information. We’ve known for years that people who consume primarily vegetable protein appear to be healthier. Once again, it is not clear whether it is the vegetable protein itself that is beneficial or whether the benefit is due to other characteristics of populations who consume a lot of vegetable protein.

3)     Does that mean that you need to become a vegetarian? It probably reflects my personal bias, but I am reminded of a Woody Allen Quote: “Vegetarians don’t live longer. It just seems that way”. I am also encouraged by studies suggesting that most of the health benefits of vegetarianism can be achieved by diets that consist of around 50% vegetable protein.

I would never discourage anyone from becoming a vegetarian, but if you aren’t ready for that, I would highly recommend that you aim for at least 50% vegetable protein in your diet.

4)     Finally, this study suggests that a high protein diet is beneficial for people over 65. This is also not a completely novel idea. It is consistent with a lot of recent research.

My advice to those of you who, like me, are over 65 is to pay attention to high protein foods and make sure that they are an important part of your diet. I’m not suggesting that you go for the double bacon cheeseburger just because you are over 65. I would still aim for a significant percentage of vegetable protein as a part of a healthy diet at any age.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor