You've probably heard that omega-3 fatty acids, which are found primarily in fatty fish, protect the heart. Now preliminary research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that omega-3s—particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—might also help young children stave off type 1 diabetes. When they analyzed the diets of 1,770 children at high risk for diabetes, researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Florida noticed that the more omega-3s children ate, the less likely they were to develop the disease.
"This is an exciting association, but we still have to prove it with direct testing," cautions Michael Clare-Salzler, one of the paper's authors. An explanation may be that omega-3s increase the body's ability to fight inflammation, which contributes to the development of diabetes. Or it may be that parents who make sure their children get plenty of omega-3s are also choosing other healthy foods that make the difference, says Clare-Salzler. He's currently recruiting patients for a clinical trial to test whether omega-3 supplements can prevent type 1 diabetes among infants and children.
For people who don't want to wait for more data before altering their diets, there are a number of options. Breast milk contains EPA and DHA if Mom consumes them, and numerous products, including infant formulas, have been fortified. Fish oil supplements, such as cod liver oil or krill oil, are also rich sources of the fatty acids. Fatty cold water fish such as albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and herring are good dietary sources. However, according to Clare-Salzler, the amount of omega 3s in farmed fish can vary depending on how they are raised and what they are fed. Some people worry that many wild fish populations are dwindling and that certain fish can be contaminated with mercury, so some supplement makers have started to offer products derived from algae, the basis of the fish diet. It's an option the companies claim provides the nutritional benefit of omega-3s without the risk of contamination.