WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Add another star to the list of health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids. Recent Purdue University research shows that they also help bones grow.
"Past research showed that eating more omega-3 fatty acids could decrease coronary heart disease risk and might decrease chances of getting certain cancers," says Purdue food science professor Bruce Watkins, "but our research is the first to suggest that omega-3's improve bone growth."
Watkins spoke Sept. 18 at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) conference on "The Return of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Into the Food Supply." He also co-chaired a session of the conference.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of two major types of polyunsaturated fatty acids in our diet, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The other type, omega-6 fatty acids, are common in corn, soy and safflower oil. Omega-3's are found in large quantities in fish, soybean oil and canola oil. It's their presence in those foods that has prompted some nutrition experts to recommend that people eat fish once or twice a week to decrease heart disease.
Watkins, who also presented his research this month in Cincinnati at the 19th annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, found that bones of animals fed increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids showed improved formation rates and were stronger when compared to bones of animals in a control group. Watkins did studies with both rats and chickens.
Bones grow in response to the actions of muscles, Watkins says. When you use your muscles, they send chemical signals to your bones that tell the bones how to form or re-form.
"But if the right chemicals aren't there, bones may not respond as quickly or as well," he says.
What you eat determines which chemicals are in your body to carry signals from muscle to bone. And one of the chemicals we need is the group of fats called omega-3 fatty acids.
"This is most important for the young, whose bones are growing and changing at a rapid rate," Watkins says. He stresses that young children especially need to eat a variety of fats.
"Right now there are no national recommendations on amounts of omega-3 fatty acids people should include in their diets," Watkins says, "although studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for proper brain and retinal development in infants, that they improve immune functions, they alleviate arthritis symptoms and inflammation, and they lower the risk for cardiovascular disease."
Food industry representatives who attended the NIH conference reported that they have found ways to increase levels of omega-3 fatty acids in eggs, chicken, pork, beef and dairy products by changing the animals' diets, according to Watkins. Omega-3-enriched eggs already are available in Canada, Australia and the southwestern United States.