Girls Get Their "Good" Fats Back

Omega 3 fatty acid supplements not necessary for girls recovering from eating disorders

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The way an eating disorder affects a person's body can have long-term implications. However, there is a good news for girls who recover from an eating disorder.

A recent study found that they regain healthy levels of an essential type of fat in their body once they regain a healthy amount of weight.

"Ask your therapist if you need omega-3 supplements."

The study was authored by Ingemar Swenne, MD, PhD, from Uppsala University Children's Hospital, in Sweden, and Agneta Rosling, MD and PhD candidate, from the Department of Neuroscience in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Uppsala University.

Their findings were based on the analysis of red blood cells in 24 teenage girls who had lost an average of 22 pounds from their eating disorders.

The average age of the girls was 14. Seven of the girls had an unspecified eating disorder, and 17 of them had anorexia nervosa.

Their average body mass index (BMI) was 15, which is severely underweight. BMI is a ratio of a person's weight to their height and is used to establish a healthy weight. A BMI under 18.5 is considered unhealthy.

At the start of the study, 12 of the girls with eating disorders had depression, though only two still had depression when the researchers followed up one year later.

In addition, only two of the girls with eating disorders were menstruating when the study began, but 16 were having menstruation by the one-year follow-up. It's not uncommon for girls to stop having periods when they are at an unhealthy, low weight.

The researchers compared the data from these girls to a group of 39 girls of a normal weight, from local schools. These girls were the same age as those with eating disorders but had an average BMI of 21.2.

At the start of the study, the girls with eating disorders had lower levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that is important to a person's metabolism.

"Essential fatty acid status is altered in eating disorders that result in weight loss," said Dr. Swenne. "This is important because deficiencies in polyunsaturated omega-3 essential fatty acids have been implicated in the development of depression and other mental health issues."

The malnutrition that causes a depletion of omega-3 fatty acids can have other long-term health implications, according to an editorial in the journal Acta Paediatrica that appeared with the study.

"Deficiency of essential fatty acids in childhood and adolescence is associated with a range of abnormalities including growth failure, dermatitis, red blood cell fragility, developmental delay, impaired visual development and neurological and psychological disturbance in childhood and adolescence," wrote David Forbes and Howard Parsons in the editorial.

At the follow-up, the girls with eating disorders had regained some weight, reaching a healthier average BMI of 19.

They were not given supplements with essential fatty acids, but their levels of omega-3 fatty acids had improved and reached a level closer to those of the girls without eating disorders.

These results led Dr. Gosling and Dr. Swenne to conclude that it's not necessary to provide girls with supplements of fatty acids when they are recovering from an eating disorder.

"It is clear from our study that once the girls attending the Eating Disorders Unit received adequate nutrition, normalized their eating behaviors and gained weight, their metabolism and endocrine function improved," wrote Dr. Rosling.

"This was sufficient to ensure that their essential fatty acid status improved and, in particular, their omega-3 levels recovered to a more healthy level," she said. "We believe that this research indicates that providing girls with eating disorders with omega-3 supplements is unnecessary if they normalize their eating behavior and weight."

The study was published in the August issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica. The research was funded by the HRH Crown Princess Lovisas Fund for Child Health Care, the Gillbergska Foundation, the First of May Flower Annual Campaign, the Professor Bror Gadleius Memorial Foundation, the Sven Jerring Foundation and Uppsala University. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 19, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2013