Lack of omega-3 shortens life expectancy as much as smoking, say experts

Do you get enough omega-3 in your diet?

Woman preparing an oily fish dish with slices of lemon
(Image credit: Getty/ VICUSCHKA)

Do you pack enough oily fish into your diet? If not, your levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids could be low - something that new research has linked to a shortened life expectancy.

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the research paper (opens in new tab) is based on statistics from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), one of the world's longest-running studies which looks into the causes of prevention against cardiovascular disease. 

Diet is one key biomarker used in the study, and fatty acids - particularly types known as EPA (eicosapetaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) - have long been associated with a heart-healthy diet. Such fatty acids are typically found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, along with the best fish oil supplements.

However, researchers have now indicted that a lack of these fatty acids in one's diet could have decrease life expectancy as much as smoking. 

Lead researcher Dr. Michael McBurney (opens in new tab) of the University of Guelph in Canada commented: "Being a current smoker (at age 65) is predicted to subtract more than four years of life (compared with not smoking), a life shortening equivalent to having a low vs. a high omega-3 Index."

Man eating salmon with bread and salad

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dr. McBurnley also said of the findings: "It is interesting to note that in Japan, where the mean Omega-3 Index is greater than eight per cent, the expected life span is around five years longer than it is in the United States, where the mean Omega-3 Index is about five per cent. 

"Hence, in practice, dietary choices that change the Omega-3 Index may prolong life," he added.

The percentage of omega-3 levels in your blood can be found out by a blood test, while a good level is said to be anything around eight per cent, and a low amount is around four per cent.

A diet rich in omega-3 foods is generally accepted as the best source of these essential fatty acids. 

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (opens in new tab) cites fish such as salmon, anchovies and sardines as a key component of a healthy eating pattern, not only for its omega-3 content but also as a good food source of vitamin D and vitamin B12, protein and iron. 

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people eat 1-2 portions of oily fish a week. Consider using one of the best grills to prepare your fish in a healthy manner.

However, for those who don't or can't eat fish, supplementation is also an option. 

Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance journalist who writes about fitness and wellbeing for the BBC, Woman&Home and Tech Radar. During lockdown she found her love of running outside again and now attempts to run around 50 miles a month. When it comes to other fitness, she loves a sweaty cardio session – although since she’s been working out from home she’s sure her downstairs neighbors aren’t too happy about it. She also loves to challenge herself - and has signed up to do hiking holidays, intense bootcamps and last year she went on her dream activity holiday: paddle boarding around deserted islands in Croatia. On her rest days, she loves to recover with a simple yoga flow session – the perfect antidote to her active fitness schedule.