Oh, fish oil supplements. We had such high hopes for you and your omega-3 fatty acids—you were supposed to boost our brain power and make our hearts healthier. Turns out you’re pretty much worthless.
A study released today in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that fish oil supplements weren’t linked with a lower risk of death from all causes, cardiac deaths or sudden deaths, nor were they associated with reduced odds of having a stroke or heart attack. Researchers scrutinized 20 studies that included 68,680 patients to draw that conclusion.
Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fatty fish such as salmon and some vegetable oils, may reduce inflammation and lower triglyceride levels, making them good for cardiovascular health. Since our bodies can’t make them we have to consume them, and there are longstanding debates about whether that’s best done through supplements or foods.
Studies on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is big on fish and nuts, have helped push the idea that omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of good health.
In the JAMA study all but two of the studies analyzed used supplements, and the average supplement dose was 1.51 grams per day taken for an average of two years. In most studies the supplements were taken by people who already had a heart attack or some form of cardiovascular disease.
“Our findings do not justify the use of omega-3 as a structured intervention in everyday clinical practice or guidelines supporting dietary omega-3 (polyunsaturated fatty acid) administration,” the authors wrote.
So where does that leave us? Back to eating fish, since that may be where the benefits truly are (By the way, McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish doesn’t count. Sorry). That’s not great news for people who don’t love fish—which is a lot of people—and for those who think that taking a pill is the preferred way to solve health problems.
It’s also not great news for the supplement industry—if people pay attention to studies like this, which they may not. USA Today reports that sales of fish oil supplements are healthy, with Americans spending 1.1 billion on them in 2011, an increase of 5.4 percent over 2010.
Dr. Howard Weintraub, clinical director of New York University Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, told ABC News, “Patients and doctors like the idea that it is natural and has no real side effects.”
On the flip side, Dr. Steven Nissen, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine told ABC, “There's never been any compelling evidence of a clinical benefit.”
Of course, there’s always the placebo effect--if you don’t mind spending $30 a bottle for it.
Do you prefer going the supplement route for better health, or do believe in getting good nutrition through food? Let us know in the comments.
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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine | TakePart.com