Cancer Experts Applaud FDA for Action on Omega 3 Fatty Acids Too Much Omega-6, Not Enough Omega-3 Imbalance Linked to Increased Cancer Risk

WASHINGTON, May 26 -- The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) today applauded the decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to permit nutrient content claims for foods rich in specific omega-3 fatty acids. Recent research suggests a link between omega 3's and reduced risk of some cancers.

At a time when about a third of all cancer cases are related to nutrition, physical activity and other lifestyle factors, AICR urged FDA to take this step so that the public will be better informed about those foods that are rich in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Of special importance for AICR is to help consumers identify foods high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), two omega-3 fatty acids that have been associated with lower cancer risk.

Cancer experts said today that even though many Americans have cut back on fat, the relative amount of two specific kinds of fat in the typical diet remains "out of whack" -- and unhealthy. AICR researchers expressed concern that American diets are overloaded with omega-6 fats and deficient in omega-3 fats, a state of affairs that has been linked to increased cancer risk.

Omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oil. They are often used in processed snacks, baked products and commercial salad dressings.

Omega-3 fats are found mostly in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout and herring. Smaller amounts are found in canola oil, flaxseed, green leafy vegetables and walnuts. Omega-3 fats have displayed a range of anti-cancer activities in the laboratory and have been repeatedly associated with lower cancer risk in population studies.

Different Ratios = Different Risk

The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the current American diet has been measured as high as 15:1," said Melanie Polk, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at AICR. To put that figure in perspective, consider that according to the World Health Organization, in countries consuming a traditional plant-based diet, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is closer to 4:1, or even 2:1.

The ratio of "omega" fats in a given diet has been linked to heart disease for years, but new research suggests that it seems to have a direct effect on cancer risk, Polk said. Studies that have compared the diets and disease rates of large populations show that when the "omega" fats are in better balance, the risk for breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer is lower. The risk for heart disease and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis is also lower.

But only recently have researchers uncovered a "smoking gun" that could explain how and why different ratios coincide with such striking differences in cancer risk.

Laboratory Reveals Possible "Smoking Gun

The key seems to be that both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats are metabolized (processed) similarly by the body. Because their molecular structures are so similar, they compete for many of the same enzymes.

Once paired with an enzyme, however, omega-3s and omega-6s behave very differently. The molecules that arise when omega-3 fatty acids get metabolized provide a range of potential anti-cancer benefits. They show the ability to reduce the production of other, cancer-promoting enzymes, increase the rate at which cancer cells die, and help keep cancer cells from forming the new blood vessels needed for them to grow.

In fact, research funded by AICR has shown that adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet of mice can actually reduce the occurrence of tumors and slow tumor growth. Dr. W. Elaine Hardman, Ph.D., a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University, has received several AICR grants to study the cancer-fighting potential of omega-3 fatty acids.

Her previous AICR-funded research has demonstrated that omega-3s also have a potential role in helping chemotherapy drugs work more effectively and in reducing side effects from cancer treatment. This July, Dr. Hardman will chair a panel devoted to the role of fat in the cancer process at the Annual AICR/WCRF International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer taking place in Washington.

Another recently funded AICR grantee is investigating still another possible protective mechanism. Researchers Robert Chapkin, Ph.D. and Joanne Lupton, Ph.D. of Texas A & M University are investigating how a particular omega-3 fatty acid (docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) interferes with a specific protein that is critical for tumor formation in the colon.

When omega-6 fatty acids pair with an enzyme, on the other hand, the resulting molecules can actually promote inflammation, spur cells to multiply, and decrease cancer cell death.

Omega-6 fats do have a place in healthy diets," said Polk. The problem right now is that 15:1 ratio. When the amount of omega-6 fat we consume is so hugely out of proportion with the amount of omega-3s in our diet, we effectively cut ourselves off from the protective benefits that omega-3s provide.

Home Gallery Back E-mail