Measuring Fatty Acids Can Boost Health Knowledge

Optimal fatty acid levels are still unknown

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By Ashley Jambrosich, Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK)

Prof. David Ma

Prof. David Ma

Determining ideal levels of various fatty acids in blood could lead to improved health management, says Prof. David Ma, Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences.

Ma is trying to determine optimal levels for as many as 60 fatty acids found in blood. He says this research could have significant implications for disease prevention and treatment — fatty acids and other fat substances in the blood can provide many clues about overall health.

“What is the optimal level for fatty acids in the body?” says Ma. “The answer is we just don’t know.”

Standardized blood tests can reveal conditions such as high cholesterol, which affects about 40 per cent of Canadians. Once high cholesterol is identified, proper treatment can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Levels of triglycerides and total free fatty acids can also help assess disease risk because these fat substances are also linked to heart disease and diabetes. However, our diets consist of many types of fatty acids, including saturated fat, trans fat and omega-3 fatty acids, which are not currently measured.

“The problem is we don’t have any idea as to how much or how little of these fats we should be consuming,” says Ma. “In the body, not all fatty acids behave the same way.” He says determining reference ranges on an individual basis could have major health implications by providing information about proper diet and assisting with the prevention and treatment of various health conditions.

Determining optimal ranges for fatty acids is difficult because studies use a variety of different methodologies. Ma says it’s challenging to know if there are any direct health benefits to consuming fatty acids. “There has been a lot of interest in this area in recent years, but to date there are no validated benchmarks relating to overall health,” he says.

Ma is working with Statistics Canada, which is providing access to BioBank blood samples collected during the Canadian Health Measures Survey. He is also collaborating with colleagues from the University of Ottawa and the University of Waterloo. Health Canada is also supporting this research, and Ma says its involvement will be important for implementing key findings into clinical practice.

Ma and his team received a three-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fund the project.