Consumption of long-chain n-3 PUFA, particularly DHA, has been shown to improve cardiovascular risk factors but the intake required to achieve benefits is unclear. We sought to determine the relationship between DHA intake, increases in erythrocyte DHA content and changes in blood lipids.

A total of sixty-seven subjects (thirty-six male, thirty-one female, mean age 53 years) with fasting serum TAG > or = 1.1 mmol/l and BMI>25 kg/m(2) completed a 12-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel intervention. Subjects consumed 2, 4 or 6 g/d of DHA-rich fish oil (26 % DHA, 6 % EPA) or a placebo (Sunola oil). Fasting blood lipid concentrations and fatty acid profiles in erythrocyte membranes were assessed at baseline and after 6 and 12 weeks.

For every 1 g/d increase in DHA intake, there was a 23 % reduction in TAG (mean baseline concentration 1.9 (sem 0.1) mmol/l), 4.4 % increase in HDL-cholesterol and 7.1 % increase in LDL-cholesterol. Erythrocyte DHA content increased in proportion to the dose of DHA consumed (r 0.72, P < 0.001) and the increase after 12 weeks was linearly related to reductions in TAG (r - 0.38, P < 0.01) and increases in total cholesterol (r 0.39, P < 0.01), LDL-cholesterol (r 0.33, P < 0.01) and HDL-cholesterol (r 0.30, P = 0.02).

The close association between incorporation of DHA in erythrocytes and its effects on serum lipids highlights the importance of erythrocyte DHA as an indicator of cardiovascular health status.