DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in DHA and Pregnancy

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

dha supplementation saves moneyA recent study has estimated that taking DHA supplements during pregnancy, specifically in the last two trimesters, could save the US healthcare system close to $6 billion/year (Shireman et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 111: 8-10, 2016) .

Another study has come to similar conclusion in Australia (Ahmed et al, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 102-103: 5-11, 2015) .

When you have two well done studies by different investigators in different countries that come to the same conclusion, it is time to take the studies seriously and start to ask some important questions. For example:

  • Are these studies true?
  • Should we change our public health recommendations during pregnancy?
  • Is this just a public health issue, or does it affect you personally?

The Value of DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

dha supplements during pregnancyThe US study was called “Kansas University DHA Outcomes Study” (KUDOS). It studied health outcomes for 197 pregnant moms who gave birth to a single baby at the Kansas University Hospital between 2006 and 2010. The moms came from the Kansas City metropolitan area and consisted of 42% moms who self-identified as Black and 58% as other races.

The women were randomly assigned to consume 3 capsules per day containing either 600 mg DHA or a placebo containing corn and soybean oil during their second and third trimesters (starting around 14.5 weeks after gestation). Multiple pregnancy outcomes were assessed, but the main focus was on early preterm birth (infants born before 34 week’s gestation). That’s because a recent meta-analysis has reported that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy reduces early preterm births by 58% (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) .

The results of the KUDOS study were:

  • Taking DHA supplements during pregnancy, specifically in the last two trimesters, reduced early preterm birth from 4.8% to 0.6%.
  • DHA supplementation reduced average hospital costs per infant born in the Kansas Medical Center by $1678. This was primarily because of a significant reduction in the average length of time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit because of the reduction in early preterm births.
  • When the cost of supplementation was taken into account, there was a 10-fold return in hospital cost savings for every dollar spent on supplementation.
  • When the authors extrapolated this analysis to the 4 million live births in the US each year, they estimated a potential savings of $6.6 billion.
  • This corresponds to a net savings of $5.94 billion to the US health care system if you take into account the cost of providing all pregnant women in the US with 600 mg of DHA/day during the last two trimesters of pregnancy.

The authors of the KUDOS study concluded “…a public health policy to increase DHA intake during pregnancy could result in significant cost savings to the health care system in our country”.

Are These Studies True?

truthTruth in science is always elusive. It requires many years of research and multiple clinical studies. However, two well done studies in two different countries have concluded that taking DHA supplements during pregnancy significantly reduces health care costs. In addition, a recent meta-analysis of 6 published clinical studies (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) has concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy reduces early preterm births by 58%.

These are all small studies, but their results are remarkably consistent. If you were to generalize the conclusions of all these studies into a statement saying “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy significantly reduces health care costs”, there is a good probability that statement would be true. However:

  • The exact cost savings is uncertain.
  • The source of omega-3s (DHA, EPA, or a mixture of the two) is uncertain.
  • The amount of omega-3 fatty acids needed to reduce early preterm births is uncertain.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Cost Savings of Using DHA Supplements During Pregnancy

  • On the minus side, 42% of the women in the KUDOS study were Black, while the national average is 16%. That is significant because the rate of early preterm births is twice as high for black women as it is for White and Asian women. If the results of the KUDOD study were extrapolated to the percentage of Black women in the US population, the cost savings to the US health care system would only be around $4 billion – still a pretty substantial number!
  • On the plus side, the initial hospital costs associated with early preterm birth are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also considerable long-term expenses for special education services associated with disabling conditions common with premature infants.  A recent study (Mangham et al, Pediatrics 123: e312-e327, 2009) calculated the costs of preterm birth in the UK from birth to 18 years of age and came up with an estimate of $4.567 billion in US dollars. If we assume that omega-3 supplementation results in a 58% decrease in early preterm birth (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016) and extrapolate that cost savings to the US population, the total cost savings would be $13.2 billion. Now we’re talking real money!

Source of Omega-3s:

  • DHA has been the focus of the two most recent studies on cost savings because of the role of DHA in nerve, brain and visual development, but EPA is also likely to be important in neonatal development. In addition, the efficiency of conversion of EPA to DHA is very high.
  • In fact, when we look at the individual studies included in the meta-analysis described above (Kar et al, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 198: 40-46, 2016), DHA, EPA, and EPA+DHA supplementation all gave comparable reductions in early preterm births.

Amount of Omega-3s:

  • While the 600 mg/day used in the KUDOS study is probably a good starting point, the individual studies in the meta-analysis used a wide range of dose. All of them seemed to have at least some efficacy in reducing early preterm births. Obviously, more studies are needed to determine the optimal dose.

What Does This Mean For You?

All this talk about reducing health care costs may seem esoteric. You may be wondering “What does this have to do with me?”

  • Don’t be lulled to complacency by the estimated cost savings of $1678/birth mentioned above. That is the average costs of all births. Early preterm births represent only 4.78% of all the births in the study. If you give birth to a baby earlier than 34 weeks of gestation, there is a high probability your infant will end up in the neonatal intensive care unit and your health care costs will be orders of magnitude more than $1678. How that affects your wallet will depend on your insurance plan.
  • Early preterm birth is associated with increased risk of global and selective cognitive defects. These can range from relatively mild impairment of IQ, memory, executive function, non-verbal skills, and motor skills to much more serious conditions like cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and disorders of psychological development. The possibility of avoiding those kinds of defects in your child is priceless.

 

The Bottom Line

  • Recent studies in the US and Australia have shown that taking 600 mg of DHA supplements during pregnancy during the last two trimesters  significantly reduces early preterm births (infants born before 34 weeks gestation) resulting in an estimated savings to the US health care system of around $6 billion/year.
  • Other studies suggest that supplementation with EPA and EPA+DHA mixtures give similar results.
  • Discussions of cost savings to the US healthcare system sound somewhat esoteric. However, if you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, there are real benefits to you associated with reducing the risk of early preterm birth. That is because:
  • The costs associated with early preterm births are substantial. How much they affect your wallet will depend on your health insurance policy.
  • Early preterm births are associated with a variety of global and selective cognitive defects (for details, read the article above). The possibility of avoiding those kinds of defects in your child is priceless.

 

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.

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A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details 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.

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