Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

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New Zealand – Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, University of Auckland researchers have found.

The pregnant rats were fed either a high-fat diet to make them overweight, or a standard diet, and half from each group were also given fresh fish oil. In the offspring of the high-fat group, the fish oil treatment improved the way insulin works, which is protective against diabetes.

“This is exciting because it raises the question: if overweight women take fresh fish oil in pregnancy, will it lower the risk of their children later developing diabetes?” says Dr Ben Albert, who led the research with Professor Wayne Cutfield, both at the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute.

But he cautions against pregnant women taking fish oil on the basis of this finding – yet. “The same benefit has not yet been shown in humans, and our earlier study shows New Zealanders cannot be sure that the fish oil they buy is fresh.”

The current findings, published in high-ranking journal Scientific Reports, are part of a series of studies by the same team into the potential of omega 3 in fish oil to reduce the risk of diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses.

“Studies by other researchers using adult rats have shown that omega 3 fatty acids in fresh fish oil improve the way insulin works, which protects against diabetes and related diseases,” says Dr Albert. “We wondered if it could also be protective during pregnancy, particularly for the babies.”

The researchers found that compared to offspring in the high fat diet-only group, the adult pups of mothers in the high fat diet plus fish oil group had better insulin sensitivity, reducing their risk for diabetes.

“A clinical study we are about to embark upon will reveal whether human babies experience the same benefit.”

Starting later this year, Dr Albert will lead a clinical trial of fish oil supplements in overweight pregnant women to see if the supplements could reduce the risk of their babies becoming overweight and of developing diabetes in later life. His team has received funding for the first phase from the Health Research Council, National Science Challenge A Better Start, and Cure Kids.

Children of overweight women have nearly twice the risk of developing problems like diabetes later in life, and at least three in 10 pregnant women in New Zealand are overweight.

Up to one in five New Zealand women currently take fish oil supplements during pregnancy, according to the latest estimate.