American Indigenous and Hispanic heritage linked to omega-3 deficiency

Aug. 30, 2021

Hispanic people with a high percentage of American Indigenous ancestry are at increased risk of an omega-3 nutritional deficiency that could affect their heart health and contribute to harmful inflammation, new research suggests, according to a news release from the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Researchers at the university and their collaborators have linked American Indigenous ancestry with increased risk of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency among Hispanic Americans. Found in foods such as fatty fish and certain nuts, omega-3s are thought to be important in preventing heart disease and play an important role in the immune system.

Doctors can use the new findings, the researchers say, to identify Hispanic patients at risk of omega-3 deficiency and to help them correct the problem with nutritional guidance or supplements. This could help the patients avoid heart problems and other health issues down the road.

The new findings underscore the need for doctors to look beyond simple racial and ethnic classifications, the researchers say. The results are an important reminder that there is tremendous genetic diversity within patient populations, and particularly among Hispanic Americans, the scientists note.

In a new scientific paper outlining their findings, the researchers from UVA describe how most Hispanic Americans have ancestry that is either predominantly European and American Indigenous or predominantly European and African. Members of the former group often trace their family roots to Mexico, Central America, or South America, while members of the latter primarily have their roots in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico.

To better understand the potential effect of American Indigenous ancestry on the body’s ability to process omega-3s, the researchers looked at naturally occurring variations in a particular cluster of genes in 1,102 Hispanic-American study participants. This gene cluster, known as the fatty acid desaturase cluster, or FADS, helps determine how the body uses both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

The scientists concluded that the gene variations most associated with low fatty acid levels occurred much more frequently in Hispanic people with greater American Indigenous ancestry. These variations were also associated with increased levels of triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, and with several other metabolic and inflammatory traits as well.

The findings suggest that American Indigenous ancestry could offer a simple and effective way for doctors to identify Hispanic patients at risk for fatty acid deficiencies. Instead of a pill, a care provider might prescribe a healthy eating plan to compensate for that deficiency.

In the future, when genetic testing becomes more routine, doctors might examine a particular patient’s FADS cluster to further refine their nutritional recommendations, the scientists say.

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