Scientific discoveries are rife with serendipity – being in the right place at the right time. One of those convergences occurred fifty years ago, in 1971, with a seminal observation and subsequent publication that fundamentally expanded our view of nutrition, dietary fats, cardiovascular health, pathophysiology, and biochemistry.
This 1971 publication – recently recounted in correspondence by four prestigious researchers in the journal Nature Food (1) – was led by two Danish physicians, Hans Bang and Jørn Dyerberg, along with their co-author AB Nielsen. These researchers first noted a seemingly striking contradiction between high dietary fat intake and low plasma cholesterol, culminating in reduced cardiovascular disease in the population of Greenland Inuits (2). After publishing two additional papers, Bang and Dyerberg hypothesized that these “heart-healthy” effects were attributed to the unusual type and amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids in fatty fish – long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Quoting the Nature Food authors, “Together, these three seminal papers led by Bang and Dyerberg, and published between 1971 and 1978, demonstrated a remarkable evolution of the understanding of diet, fatty acids, and health”.
Confluence of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, the Nobel Prize, and Health and Wellbeing
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids affect the body’s physiology and biochemistry through a myriad of biological mechanisms. First, they impact the structure and function of biological membranes, where they influence the membrane’s fluidity and potential enzymatic activities. Second, these fatty acids significantly affect cellular signaling. Herein, the research of Bang and Dyerberg converges with those of three other renowned scientists awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Indeed, these scientists were awarded the Prize for their research into the biochemistry and physiological importance of a hormone-like class of signaling molecules known as eicosanoids (3). Although not directly contributing to their Prize, subsequent research (including by the awardees themselves) noted that the omega-3 fatty acids from fish could also be converted to eicosanoids that either positively affects the cellular function or help block the harmful effects of eicosanoids synthesized by other fatty acids. Even beyond eicosanoids, omega-3 fatty acids are further metabolized into additionally potent substances called specialized pro-resolving mediators (SPM) that help the body “resolve” inflammation.
Unsurprisingly, omega-3 fatty acids, and their metabolites, play a significant role in supporting overall health and wellbeing. Correspondingly, dietary intake and tissue status of these essential nutrients have been implicated in poor health outcomes ranging from obesity and metabolic dysfunction (4), cardiovascular health (5,6), and even exercise recovery (7).
Most American’s Diets are Low in Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids, are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna. Other omega-3 fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid, are found in certain vegetables, vegetable oils, and nuts. While also associated with better health, these omega-3 fatty acids are poorly converted to EPA or DHA and generally considered less potent.
Unfortunately, considerable research indicates that Americans consume an inadequate amount of these essential nutrients. One just-published study of over 1,300 American adults reported that 68% of American adults had long-chain omega-3 serum levels below that associated with their health benefits (8). For additional context, one study reported that the average American adult consumed approximately 41mg per day of EPA+DHA (9), woefully short of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for American recommendation of 250mg per day of these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (10). To add more omega-3 to your diet, you may consider increasing a judicious selection of fatty fish or adding a dietary supplement rich in these vital health-promoting nutrients.
To summarize the Nature Food article, the authors concluded with, “On this 50th anniversary of the first paper on the Greenland Inuit by Hans Olaf Bang and Jørn Dyerberg, it is timely to reflect back on the intellectual questions asked and investigative paths taken that led these two Danes to establish one of the most impactful research areas of the last half century”.
- Harris, W.S., Calder, P.C., Mozaffarian, D. et al. Bang and Dyerberg’s omega-3 discovery turns fifty. Nat Food 2, 303–305 (2021).
- Bang HO, Dyerberg J, Nielsen AB. Plasma lipid and lipoprotein pattern in Greenlandic West-coast Eskimos. Lancet. 1971 Jun 5;1(7710):1143-5.
- The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1982. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Mon. 16 Aug 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1982/summary/.
- Albracht-Schulte K, Kalupahana NS, Ramalingam L, Wang S, Rahman SM, Robert-McComb J, Moustaid-Moussa N. Omega-3 fatty acids in obesity and metabolic syndrome: a mechanistic update. J Nutr Biochem. 2018 Aug;58:1-16.
- Jayedi A, Shab-Bidar S. Fish Consumption and the Risk of Chronic Disease: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses of Prospective Cohort Studies. Adv Nutr. 2020 Sep 1;11(5):1123-1133.
- Bernasconi AA, Wiest MM, Lavie CJ, Milani RV, Laukkanen JA. Effect of Omega-3 Dosage on Cardiovascular Outcomes: An Updated Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of Interventional Trials. Mayo Clin Proc. 2021 Feb;96(2):304-313.
- Jakeman JR, Lambrick DM, Wooley B, Babraj JA, Faulkner JA. Effect of an acute dose of omega-3 fish oil following exercise-induced muscle damage. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Mar;117(3):575-582.
- Murphy RA, Devarshi PP, Ekimura S, Marshall K, Hazels Mitmesser S. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid serum concentrations across life stages in the USA: an analysis of NHANES 2011-2012. BMJ Open. 2021 May 10;11(5):e043301.
- Papanikolaou Y, Brooks J, Reider C, Fulgoni VL 3rd. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutr J. 2014 Apr 2;13:31.
- McGuire S. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2011. Adv Nutr. 2011 May;2(3):293-4.
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