Every year, more than 170,000 men and women in the United States die from a heart attack. Knowing this, an international team of researchers joined forces to create the Fatty Acids and Outcomes Research Consortium (FORCE), in order to unravel the truth behind how diet can improve a person’s chances of surviving a heart attack. Their findings, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, found common foods like salmon, mackerel, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts may be a way to eat your way to a higher rate of survival.

"These new results, including many studies which previously had not reported their findings, provide the most comprehensive picture to-date of how omega-3s may influence heart disease," said the study’s lead author Liana Del Gobbo, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, in a statement. "Across these diverse studies, findings were also consistent by age, sex, race, presence or absence of diabetes, and use of aspirin or cholesterol-lowering medications."

For the study, FORCE researchers examined 19 studies from 16 different countries around the world, which included 45,637 participants. They focused on each participant’s daily dietary intake, along with if and when they experienced their first heart attack and if or when it led to an imminent death. Of the 7,973 participants who had a heart attack, 2,781 did not survive. After calculating the amount of omega-3 fatty acids each participant consumed on a daily basis, they found those who ate both plant- and seafood-based omega-3s had a 10 percent lower risk of experiencing a fatal heart attack.

"Most prior studies of dietary fats have relied on self-reported estimates of intake," said the study’s senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University, in a statement. "This new global consortium provides an unprecedented opportunity to understand how different fats and fatty acids relate to diverse health outcomes, and many additional investigations are in progress."

Walnut Omega 3 Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods such as walnuts and salmon, can help protect against a deadly heart attack. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

The research team believes their findings will be able to put doubts to rest about the positive effects that omega-3 fatty acids can have on a person’s heart. The overall rate of fatal heart attacks in the United States could gradually decrease if people ate a greater amount of omega-3 fats. According to Mozaffarian: "At a time when some but not other trials of fish oil supplementation have shown benefits, there is uncertainty about cardiovascular effects of omega-3s. Our results lend support to the importance of fish and omega-3 consumption as part of a healthy diet."

What is it about omega-3 fats that give a person’s heart the strength to survive after an attack? While the human body can make most of the different types of fats it needs to function from raw materials, it isn’t able to do so with omega-3 fats. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, because the body can’t make them out of scratch, a person needs to acquire them from food, which includes fish, vegetable oils, nuts, and flax seeds. Once consumed, they start making hormones to help regulate blood clotting, the contracting and relaxing of the artery walls, and inflammation. These hormones give omega-3 fats the ability to give the heart a steady beat — ultimately reducing the risk of igniting a fatal heart attack.

Source: Del Gobbo LC, and Mozaffarian D, et al. ω-3 Polyunsaturated fatty acid biomarkers and coronary heart disease. Pooling project of 19 cohort studies. JAMA Internal Medicine . 2016.