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Researcher hopes to make health impact in India with omega-3

By Kelly Foss | Nov. 30, 2012

A biochemistry researcher at Memorial is hoping to make a long-term impact on the health and economic well-being of India.

For the past 25 years Sukhinder Kaur Cheema has been looking into the impact of diet on heart disease, diabetes and obesity with a focus on omega-3 fatty acids. In recent years, Dr. Cheema has been researching the impacts of maternal nutrition and has shown how a mother’s diet during pregnancy and lactation can affect the health of the child in later years.

“Our recent data using animal models is very exciting because it has shown that a mother’s diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can lower blood lipid levels in her child, thereby indicating that it can reduce the risk of heart disease,” she said. “My PhD student Kayode Balogun also found smaller fat cells in these offspring and a higher accumulation of DHA in the brain, which is linked to cognitive function, IQ and memory.”

During a conversation with a collaborator in India, Dr. Cheema found out about an upcoming Indian Hypertension Society conference.

“India is also having major issues with obesity, heart disease and diabetes and we thought an awareness of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids could help,” said the researcher. “However, since a majority of the population is vegetarian, they would be more interested in vegetarian sources of omega-3.”

Past research by Dr. Cheema has shown that flax seed oil is a valuable vegetarian omega-3 fatty acid source, with the same benefits as marine sources. Flax was a regular part of the Indian diet in the past. In fact, Dr. Cheema says she was fed flax as a child growing up there, but it has been all but forgotten in the modern, more westernized India.

“We thought it would be very important to promote omega-3 fatty acids at this conference and tell people about the vegetarian sources of it as well,” she said. “We also realized an awareness of the benefits of flax could help agriculture and food industry in India – by having them growing it, incorporating it into foods and bringing them to market.”

Dr. Cheema was successful at obtaining a Partnership Development Seed Grant from Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, which has a mandate of building and strengthening links between India and Canada toward improving the quality of life of both countries, and offers a variety of grant programs open to faculty and graduate students in many disciplines. The grant allowed her to hold a symposium along with the Indian Hypertension Society conference to bring awareness to the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and its vegetarian sources.

Because her focus was on flax seed, she also contacted the Flax Council of Canada, which is involved in flax production, food preparation and marketing in Canada. They became extremely interested in being involved in the symposium.

“Up until now they hadn’t thought about partnerships with India, but when I explained the conference and symposium and how their involvement would bring awareness in India, and could help agriculture and industry – they jumped at the opportunity to come and present at the conference.”

On campus, Dr. Cheema received support from Memorial’s International Centre and from the provincial Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development, with both units helping her make health and agricultural industry contacts in India.

“The symposium on health benefits of flax and omega-3 fatty acids was a great success,” said Dr. Cheema. “It was attended by scientists, dietitians, nutritionists, Indian Agro Tech scientists and food industry representatives interested in developing novel foods with flax.

“Trade commissioners at the Canadian Consulate in India are very excited about this new Indo-Canadian collaboration to promote the use of flax in health in both countries.”

 


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