Parents began periodically reporting dietary intake when the children were a year old. The average age at follow-up was 6.2 years. During that time period, 58 children developed type 1 diabetes, according to the study.
The researchers found no statistically significant differences in the rate of diabetes based on omega-6 consumption, however, there was a 55 percent reduced risk in those who reported consuming the most omega-3 fatty acids.
Because self-reported dietary information isn't always the most reliable indicator of actual consumption, the researchers conducted an analysis that included 244 children and measured a biomarker of omega-3 consumption from the blood. In this subgroup, the researchers found that omega-3 fatty acid consumption reduced the risk of type 1 diabetes by 37 percent.
Norris said the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s may be behind this potentially protective effect. "Inflammation is part of the very early process of diabetes," she explained.
"In type 1 diabetes, there is an inflammatory response that causes [islet] cell destruction, and it may be that omega-3 is a modulator of that inflammation," said Dr. Stuart Weiss, an endocrinologist at New York University Medical Center. Weiss cautioned that this effect may not be permanent, however. "It may just be that omega-3s have delayed the onset of the disease, but the longer those cells function, the better."
Weiss said he hopes the findings prompt a large, randomized, controlled study to confirm whether or not omega-3 consumption can truly prevent diabetes.
Norris said it's too soon to recommend that children, even those at high risk of diabetes, consume more omega-3s for the prevention of diabetes.
Weiss said that omega-3 fatty acids are often already part of a healthy diet since they're found in fish, fish oil and plant oils.
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