Association of Plasma Phospholipid n-3 and n-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids with Type 2 Diabetes

The EPIC-InterAct Case-Cohort Study

Citation: Forouhi NG, Imamura F, Sharp SJ, Koulman A, Schulze MB, Zheng J, et al. (2016) Association of Plasma Phospholipid n-3 and n-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids with Type 2 Diabetes: The EPIC-InterAct Case-Cohort Study. PLoS Med 13(7): e1002094. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002094
Published: July 19, 2016

Background: Whether and how n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are related to type 2 diabetes (T2D) is debated. Objectively measured plasma PUFAs can help to clarify these associations.
Methods and Findings: Plasma phospholipid PUFAs were measured by gas chromatography among 12,132 incident T2D cases and 15,919 subcohort participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-InterAct study across eight European countries. Country-specific hazard ratios (HRs) were estimated using Prentice-weighted Cox regression and pooled by random-effects meta-analysis. We also systematically reviewed published prospective studies on circulating PUFAs and T2D risk and pooled the quantitative evidence for comparison with results from EPIC-InterAct. In EPIC-InterAct, among long-chain n-3 PUFAs, α-linolenic acid (ALA) was inversely associated with T2D (HR per standard deviation [SD] 0.93; 95% CI 0.88–0.98), but eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were not significantly associated. Among n-6 PUFAs, linoleic acid (LA) (0.80; 95% CI 0.77–0.83) and eicosadienoic acid (EDA) (0.89; 95% CI 0.85–0.94) were inversely related, and arachidonic acid (AA) was not significantly associated, while significant positive associations were observed with γ-linolenic acid (GLA), dihomo-GLA, docosatetraenoic acid (DTA), and docosapentaenoic acid (n6-DPA), with HRs between 1.13 to 1.46 per SD. These findings from EPIC-InterAct were broadly similar to comparative findings from summary estimates from up to nine studies including between 71 to 2,499 T2D cases. Limitations included potential residual confounding and the inability to distinguish between dietary and metabolic influences on plasma phospholipid PUFAs.
Conclusions: These large-scale findings suggest an important inverse association of circulating plant-origin n-3 PUFA (ALA) but no convincing association of marine-derived n3 PUFAs (EPA and DHA) with T2D. Moreover, they highlight that the most abundant n6-PUFA (LA) is inversely associated with T2D. The detection of associations with previously less well-investigated PUFAs points to the importance of considering individual fatty acids rather than focusing on fatty acid class.

Author Summary

Why Was This Study Done?

  • Most dietary guidelines recommend the consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids for cardiovascular health, but it is unclear whether or how n-3 and n-6 types of polyunsaturated fatty acids are related to type 2 diabetes.
  • Health concerns have been raised previously about a diet high in linoleic acid (n-6 fatty acid), but its association with type 2 diabetes is unclear.
  • Major limitations in previous studies have included the error-prone subjective assessment of the habitual consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids when dietary intakes were evaluated and a small number of type 2 diabetes cases (n = 71 to 673) when objective biomarkers of polyunsaturated fatty acids were measured.

What Did the Researchers Do and Find?

  • We measured circulating individual polyunsaturated fatty acids in the blood samples of individuals within a large study from across eight countries of Europe among a reference sample of 15,919 individuals as well as 12,132 individuals who subsequently developed diabetes. Individuals were followed up for an average of approximately 10 y.
  • We investigated the association between individual polyunsaturated fatty acids and the risk of future type 2 diabetes using statistical analyses that accounted for factors that could be potential alternative explanations for any observed associations.
  • We found that higher levels of blood alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-origin n-3 fatty acid, and n-6 linoleic acid, the most abundant type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, were associated with a lower risk of future type 2 diabetes. In contrast, higher levels of four other minor individual n-6 fatty acids were associated with higher type 2 diabetes risk, while the blood marine-origin n-3 fatty acids were not associated with future diabetes.

What Do These Findings Mean?

  • Our findings show that it is important to consider individual circulating polyunsaturated fatty acids for association with type 2 diabetes risk, rather than placing emphasis on the class of circulating polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • We found that blood n-6 linoleic acid, the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid, is inversely associated with type 2 diabetes.
  • We found no evidence that blood total n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids may elevate the risk of type 2 diabetes, but several individual minor blood n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids were associated with increased type 2 diabetes risk, highlighting the importance of polyunsaturated fatty acid metabolism in the development of type 2 diabetes.


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