Alpha linolenic acid, the omega-3 fat found in walnuts and flaxseed, promotes bone health by helping to prevent excessive bone turnover–when consumption of foods rich in this omega-3 fat results in a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the diet.
Other studies have shown that diets rich in the omega-3s from fish (DHA and EPA), which also naturally result in a lowered ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, reduce bone loss. Researchers think this is most likely because omega-6 fats are converted into pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, while omega-3 fats are metabolized into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. (Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances made in our bodies from fatty acids.)
In this study, 23 participants ate each of 3 diets for a 6-week period with a 3 week washout period in between diets. All 3 diets provided a similar amount of fat, but their ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats was quite different:
- Diet 1 provided 34% total fat with omega-6 and omega-3 fats in amounts typically seen in the American diet: 9% polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) of which 7.7% were omega-6 and only 0.8% omega-3 fats, resulting in a pro-inflammatory ratio of 9.6:1.
- Diet 2, an omega-6-rich diet, provided 37% total fat containing 16% PUFAs of which 12% were omega-6 and 3.6% omega-3, a better but still pro-inflammatory ratio of 3.3:1.
- Diet 3, which provided 38% in total fats, was an omega-3-rich diet, containing 17% PUFAs, of which 10.5% were omega-6 and 6.5% omega-3, resulting in an anti-inflammatory ratio of 1.6:1.
After each diet, subjects’ blood levels of N-telopeptides, a marker of bone breakdown, were measured, and were found to be much lower following Diet 3, the omega-3-rich diet, than either of the other two.
The level of N-telopeptides in each diet also correlated with that of a marker of inflammation called tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). Diets 1 and 2, which both had a significantly higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, resulted in much higher levels of TNF-alpha than the diet high in omega-3 fats from walnuts and flaxseed.
Practical Tip: To decrease excessive bone breakdown and protect bone health, make omega-3-rich flaxseed and walnuts, as well as cold water fish, frequent contributors to your healthy way of eating.
Griel AE, Kris-Etherton PM, Hilpert KF, Zhao G, West SG, Corwin RL. An increase in dietary n-3 fatty acids decreases a marker of bone resorption in humans. Nutr J. 2007 Jan 16;6:2.