Omega-3’s Role in the Battle for Nutritional Armor


Omega-3s and the Military: Active duty soldiers are often captive diners eating at dining facilities on base both here and in a deployed environment. Finding the right nutritional balance is especially important for this group, whose dining choices are made by a combination of procurement staff, defense logistics personnel and health education professionals, long before that soldier steps into the food line or opens an MRE.

Samueli Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a panel of experts to review the optimal fatty acids for military service members. The panel unanimously agreed that a military Daily Recommended Intake for omega-3 fatty acids should be established while also working to lower current intakes of omega-6s.

The experts concluded that based on studies analyzing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid balance, it would be unethical to not attempt elevating the omega-3 status among U.S. military personnel.

General health, performance, depression and suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury were areas of interest. As adverse side effects were deemed negligible, they determined:

1. Sufficient evidence exists to support increasing omega-3 intake for:

  • Cardiovascular, immunological, and surgical benefits
  • Depressive symptom reduction and suicide prevention
  • Preloading with omega-3 fatty acids before combat exposure may be beneficial

2. Promising evidence exists for traumatic brain injury

3. Insufficient data were available to evaluate post-traumatic stress disorder and impulsive aggression

Nutritional Armor CoverA recent Military Medicine supplement is a small window into the work being done by Samueli Institute and others to build an evidence base for the benefits of foods, nutrients, and dietary supplements for warfighters.

It’s all about the balance (not just supplementing Omega-3s)
The story of omega-3 is similar to that of many nutrients: over the last decade, this once obscure type of fat has grown into a major player in the multi-billion dollar dietary supplement industry. But at Samueli Institute, our question remains the same, “What does the science say about this essential fatty acid?”

Although early research looked at just the consumption of omega-3 supplements, newer studies show that the focus might be shifting to the balance or ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the diet and better health favoring omega-3s.

  • omega-3s are found in fatty fish including salmon, sardines, herring, fortified eggs and they can be found in dietary supplements made from flax seeds or fish oils
  • omega-6s are found in seeds and nuts, chicken, durum wheat used to make pasta, refined corn, safflower and soybean oils and shortening, including many of those in fast foods, prepackaged crackers, cookies, pastries and snacks

In the body these two essential fatty acids contribute differently to the control of the immune system, blood clotting; and they are taken up and transformed into all body tissues.

Part of what makes analyzing past studies so challenging is defining carefully the questions to be answered, casting a wide net to be sure you have all the literature in hand, sorting through it be sure you understand each study’s interventions and outcomes correctly, checking on the quality of the studies, and finally putting that knowledge together in ways useful to people and organizations.

We know both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential and only minute amounts are needed in the diet each day to prevent deficiencies.

The public and personal health questions most pressing are the impacts on health and disease coming from diets rich in either class of fatty acid and their ratio of one to the other.

For heart health the American Heart Association recommends eating no more calories than needed, eating foods from different food groups emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and minimizing red meat, refined sugars, sweetened drinks, and fatty dairy products. They also recommend eating fish twice per week.

Research strongly suggests adverse health outcomes associated with diets too high in omega-6 and too low in omega-3 fatty acids especially for cardiovascular disease, tumor propagation, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

For optimal health, results from well-conducted food, diet and supplement studies might be better interpreted when considering the dietary ratio or balance of omega-3 and omega-6. Nutrition scientists are examining the literature for evidence that omega-3 supplements cannot overcome the risks associated with diets overwhelmed by omega-6.

However, the science is incomplete.

Questions still remain about the optimal omega-6/omega-3 balance for each condition, how to best ingest these nutrients and exactly how the body reacts to them. But current and ongoing research is helping to build an evidence base and refine our understanding.

Finding answers is essential for optimizing health and preventing chronic illness:

  • Individuals want to balance the competing needs of health, money and the environment, especially as they cope with chronic conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases
  • Public health experts, health systems, and the military needs science to help them establish proper health nutrition policy
  • Military leaders want to optimize the potential of using diet or supplements safely to improve performance of its 1.3 million active duty service members

Where to Go from Here
As the science progresses what is clear is that the science in this field reinforces the need for a whole-food diet, one that keeps the amount of processed foods and refined oils to a minimum.