If you’re wondering if you’re getting enough Omega-3 in your diet, a blood test can help you decide if you need to eat more fish. The Omega-3 index blood test measures the good fats in your red-blood cells, and grades you on your related risk of heart disease. Some doctors say the test is a useful motivator, while others say most people need to focus first on basics such as losing weight and eating vegetables..
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that have been found to reduce the risk of death from heart disease. A growing body of research also suggests they may also boost memory and combat arthritis.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least twice a week, and some doctors also recommend fish-oil supplements.
The Omega-3 index test is given by a blood draw in a doctor’s office or a finger-stick test at home. It measures the amount of two heart-healthy fats—docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acids, or DHA and EPA, deposited in the membranes of red-blood cells after consuming fish or other foods rich in Omega-3s.
So far, the test results aren’t standardized among laboratories, so a result from one lab can’t be compared with another, scientists say. OmegaQuant Analytics, a laboratory owned by Omega Biostatus LLC, of Sioux Falls, S.D., in January began offering a proprietary test it calls the HS-Omega-3 Index, named for co-developers William Harris, the founder of OmegaQuant, and German scientist Clemens von Schacky. The lab aims to make the test a national standard.
The test results state your level of Omega-3 fatty acids as a percentage of total fatty acids. Under 4% in OmegaQuant’s test is considered “undesirable,” or an elevated heart-disease risk, and over 8% is “desirable.” The gradings are based on a 2004 paper, written by Dr. Harris and Dr. Schacky, which looked at a number of heart-disease studies using various types of Omega-3 blood testing and calculated what the studies’ subjects would have scored if they had gotten the company’s test instead. The grading will likely be revised based on direct evidence from 10 research studies now evaluating the test’s link to a variety of health outcomes, Dr. Harris says.
Since blood cells live an average of four months in the body, the test results reflect eating habits over the past one to four months, Dr. Harris says. A typical test result for Americans is 3% to 5%, he adds. A reporter received a value of 7.4%, which was graded as “intermediate”; a printout accompanying the result recommended that she eat more oily fish, or take a fish-oil supplement.
The Cooper Clinic, of Dallas, which this summer began offering OmegaQuant’s test to its patients, says it has been a useful educational tool. A patient may say he or she eats fish now and then “and then get the result back and say ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I’m not eating it as often as I think,’ ” says Cooper Chief Executive Tedd Mitchell.
A person’s test results depend not just on the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids they eat, but also on genetics—with some people needing to eat more foods with healthy fats to achieve a favorable result.
“It’s a good test,” but most people have other, more pressing health issues they should focus on first, says Stephen Kopecky, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Omega-3 blood levels are less important than quitting smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and eating five fresh fruits and vegetables a day—goals only 3% of Americans reach, he adds.
The test, so far generally not covered by insurance, typically costs $100 to $200 or more in the doctor’s office and $150 for the home version, available directly through OmegaQuant or through Gene Smart Wellness LLC, of Winston-Salem, N.C. The home test, while convenient, has a slight margin of error; if your home-test result comes back as 5%, Dr. Harris says, the lab is 95% confident that the result lies between 4% and 6%.