Is Omega-3 Uptake Gender Specific?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Nutritiion, Supplements and Health

Do We Need To Reexamine Everything We Thought We Knew About Omega-3s?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is omega-3 uptake gender specific

Some of you may remember the book from a few years ago titled “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. The book proposed that men and women communicate differently (Who would have guessed?), and understanding that fact would help husbands and wives communicate with each other more effectively. I know that some people complained that it was an overly simplistic viewpoint, but I know it sure helped me communicate more effectively with my wife.

I came across a very interesting article recently that suggested the omega-3 fatty acid EPA might be metabolized and utilized differently by men and women. You might say that the statement “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” applies to omega-3 utilization as well.

The Science Behind the Study

Now that I’ve captured your interest, perhaps I should fill in a few details. We have known for years that the long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA appear to be beneficial at reducing the risk of heart disease. There are several mechanisms for that protective effect:

  1. Omega-3s reduce the stickiness of platelets so that platelet aggregation, a fancy name for blood clotting, occurs less readily. Of course, we want our blood to clot when we cut ourselves, but we don’t want it to clot inside our arteries, because that is the very process that can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
  1. Omega-3s lower triglycerides and reduce inflammation, two important risk factors for heart disease.
  1. Omega-3s help keep the walls of our blood vessels elastic, which enhances blood flow and reduces the risk of hypertension.

However, for any of those things to occur, the omega-3 fatty acids must first be incorporated into our cell membranes. Thus, it is not just how much omega-3s we get in our diet that is important. We need to know how many of those omega-3s are actually incorporated into our membranes.

What if the efficiency of omega-3 uptake into cellular membranes were different for men and women? That would change everything. It would affect the design of omega-3 clinical studies. It would affect omega-3 dietary recommendations for men and women. The implications of gender-specific uptake of omega-3s would be far reaching.

Is Omega-3 Uptake Gender Specific?omega-3

The authors of this week’s study (Pipingas et al., Nutrients, 6, 1956-1970, 2014) hypothesized that efficiency of omega-3 uptake might differ in men and women. They enrolled 160 participants in the study (47% male and 53& female) with an average age of 59 years. The study excluded anybody with pre-existing diabetes or heart disease and anybody who was significantly overweight. The study also excluded anyone taking drugs that might mask the effects of the omega-3 fatty acids and anybody who had previously consumed fish oil supplements or more than two servings of seafood per week.

This was a complex study. In this review I will focus only on the portion of the study relevant to the gender specificity of omega-3 uptake. For that portion of the study, both male and female participants were divided into three groups. The first group received 3 gm of fish oil (240 mg EPA and 240 mg DHA); the second group received 6 gm of fish oil (480 mg EPA and 480 mg of DHA); and the third group received sunflower seed oil as a placebo. The study lasted 16 weeks, and the incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids into red blood cell membranes was measured at the beginning of the study and at the end of 16 weeks.

When they looked at men and women combined, they found:

  • A dose specific increase in EPA incorporation into red cell membranes compared to placebo. That simply means the amount of EPA that ended up in the red blood cell membrane was greater when the participants consumed 6 gm of fish oil than when they consumed 3 gm of fish oil.
  • Very little incorporation of DHA into red blood cell membranes was seen at either dose. This was not unexpected. Previous studies have shown that EPA is preferentially incorporated into red cell membranes. Other tissues, such a neural tissue, preferentially incorporate DHA into their membranes.

When they looked at men and women separately, they found:

  • The efficiency of EPA incorporation into red cell membranes compared to placebo was greater for women than for men. In women increased EPA uptake into red cell membranes was seen with both 3 gm and 6 gm of fish oil. Whereas, with men increased EPA incorporation into red cell membranes was only seen at with 6 gm of fish oil.

What Is The Significance Of These Observations?

The authors concluded “This is an important area for future research because dietary recommendations around long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake may need to be gender specific.”

However, there are a number of weaknesses of this study:

  1. It was a very small study. Obviously, this study needs to be repeated with a much larger cohort of men and women.
  1. This study was just looking at incorporation of omega-3s into red cell membranes. We don’t yet know whether the specificity of omega-3 uptake will be the same for other tissues. Nor do we know whether there will be gender specificity in the biological effects of omega-3s.
  1. Most importantly, not all previous studies have reported the same gender specificity in omega-3 uptake seen in this study.

So what does this mean for you? Should men be getting more omega-3 fatty acids in their diet than women, as the authors suggested? That is an intriguing idea, but based on the weaknesses I described above, I think it’s premature to make this kind of recommendation until these results have been confirmed by larger studies.

The Bottom Line

  1. A recent study has suggested that women may be more efficient at incorporating the omega-3 fatty acids EPA into their cellular membranes than men. The authors of the study concluded that “…dietary recommendations around long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake may need to be gender specific.”
  1. However, the study has a number of weaknesses:
  • It was a very small study. Obviously, it needs to be repeated with a much larger cohort of men and women.
  • This study was just looking at incorporation of omega-3s into red cell membranes. We don’t yet know whether the specificity of omega-3 uptake will be the same for other tissues. Nor do we know whether there will be gender specificity in the biological effects of omega-3s.
  • Most importantly, not all previous studies have reported the same gender specificity in omega-3 uptake seen in this study.
  1. The idea that men and women may differ in their needs for omega-3 fatty acids is intriguing, but based on the weaknesses described above, it is premature to make this kind of recommendation until the results of the current study have been confirmed by larger studies.

 

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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Comments (3)

  • kathleen sibbel

    |

    this was very interesting, I find that the more Omegaguard I take the better I feel, less aches and pains (arthritis) still, my Dr. wants to put me on statin drugs, tried them once for about 3wks. and stopped, Told him I would rather die of a stroke than be in the pain those things caused in me.
    Being Diabetic I have to go in regularly for blood work, and it always seems to be a battle. And I am always told I take too much Vita E. I just reply: better to have too much than an amputation (not in my vocabulary and better not be in his) Am anxious to show him the Dr. letter for the new Blood Pressure supplement Shaklee has introduced.
    Thanks for all your articles. so good and informative.

    Reply

  • Sheri Duncan

    |

    That is interesting but only looks at one source of omega 3’s. I’d be interested in one that looks at Flax Seed oil with omega 3,6 & 9 which is what I take. not fair, I’m a subscriber & would like those freebies too. Do you already make them available to us? I don’t check my e-mails often. Thanks Sheri

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Sherri,
      I usually emphasize sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids because those are the ones most likely to be missing from the American diet. Most naturally occurring oils contain a mixture of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. Vegetable oils other than flaxseed and canola are the best source of omega-6 fatty acids, but also have omega-3 and omega-9. Olive and peanut oil are the best sources of omega-9, but also have omega-3 and omega-6. Flaxseed and canola oil are the best source of omega-3, but also have omega-6 and omega-9.
      Flaxseed oil is not magical, but it is a very healthy oil. What you should know is that vegetable oils such as flaxseed and canola contain short chain omega-3 fatty acids and the efficiency of conversion of those to the beneficial long chain fatty acids is around 10%. That means that you need about 25 grams of flaxseed oil to get the same health benefits that you would experience with 2 or 3 grams of fish oil. That’s OK if you are using a tablespoon or two of flaxseed oil as a salad dressing, but don’t count on much benefit from a flaxseed oil supplement.
      As for the free offers you missed, they were indeed contained in the emails you didn’t read, but I can give you links for each offer. For “Three Things Every Diet Must Do” eBook, click on:
      https://www.healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/go/thank-you-three-things/
      For the “Myths of the Naysayers” eBook, click on:
      https://www.healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/go/thank-you-new/
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

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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