Is Fish Oil the New Snake Oil?
For years we have been told that as far as heart health, nothing could be better for you than taking a few fish oil pills as part of a healthy daily diet. Now a shocking study conducted by the American Medical Association has revealed that fish oil pills do not reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes in spite of the fact that they have long been used as such and sometimes even prescribed by doctors as a preventative. This edition of Nutrition Advice for Women takes a look at the recent findings about fish oil supplements and examines some alternatives to popping a pill.
Say It Ain't So...
The existing theory behind the use of fish oil pills in the diet was that they "help make the blood less ‘sticky’ and lower blood pressure by relaxing vessels, thus making heart attacks and strokes less likely." (huffingtonpost.com) To be more specific, the findings came from over 20 studies that included more than 70,000 patients and found that taking the Omega-3 fatty acids found in these pills boasted no "significant effect on rates of heart attacks, strokes and heart-related deaths." (dailymail.com)
Study author Dr. Evangelos Rizos, of the University Hospital of Ioannina in Greece, said: “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 research is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Fish oil supplements are hugely popular as dietary supplements among Americans. Though it is hard to pin down an exact figure for sales of such products, an article in Forbes magazine noted that, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, over-the-counter fish oil supplements accounted for $739 million in sales in 2009. Meanwhile, in 2010 Americans spent nearly $4 billion on products fortified with extra omega-3s, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts.
Not Everyone Agrees
Many who have been convinced that the key to a healthy heart and longevity lies party in a bottle of the amber-colored pill find themselves very disappointed by these findings, but not everyone in the medical field agrees with them. Conflicting information abounds, for example, a study published two years ago found one gram a day supplement could help extend the lives of those with heart failure, and patients who have had heart attacks are already advised to take a pill daily.
The relevance of the current study has been questioned by some. Dr. Carrie Ruxton, from the Health Supplements Information Service, said: “Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their heart health benefits with a significant body of evidence.”
According to an article on abcnews.com, "Patients and doctors like the idea that it is natural and has no real side effects," said Dr. Howard Weintraub, clinical director of New York University Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. And some doctors say the findings of the new study are no reason to cut bait on fish oil pills.
"Meta-analysis (like the type used in this study), particularly when neutral, should not be used to draw a conclusion," said Melvyn Rubenfire of the University of Michigan.
So What SHOULD You Do Instead...Go Fish!
Many experts say the best way to get fish oil is just to eat fish. The American Heart Association (AMA) currently recommends that people get their dose of omega-3 fatty acids from eating two servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, per week. For the fish-averse, a slightly different kind of omega-3 fatty acid can be found in flaxseed, walnuts soybeans, and canola oils. In addition, many cardiologists, and nutrition experts agree that regardless of its nature, no supplement is a "magic bullet" and they should never be used as a substitute for a healthy diet pattern.
As the debate on to fish or not to fish rages no, you may still be a little confused as to what types of fish are best to add to your diet and in what amounts in order to get the vital omega-3 fatty acids that we all need. The AMA has published Fish 101 which is a handy guide to more specific consumption recommendations. In addition, you should consult your doctor before starting or stopping any supplement regimen.
You can also drop us a note in the comments section below or submit your question privately and we would be more than happy to forward it on to our team of experts!