Long touted as an excellent way to reduce risk of heart attacks, stroke, myocardial infarction, and all-cause mortality, a new study published yesterday in The Journal of the American Medical Association found no correlation between taking fish oil pills rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and decreased chances of heart disease. It didn’t matter whether the fish oil was ingested from pills or actual fish in the diet, the researchers discovered—there simply wasn’t any evidence to link their intake with improved heart health.
For over a decade evidence has pointed at the possibility that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids which are composed of the acids known as EPA and DHA could help protect against heart illness, though the exact reason why was not clearly understood. This stemmed from observations that people whose diets were rich in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines were less prone to dying of heart disease, and a large study in 1989 found that those people who had already suffered from one heart attack were about 30% less likely to have a second heart attack if they added fatty fish to their diet.
Scientists reasoned that a lowering of triglyceride levels might be the cause, as well as a general drop in blood pressure and decrease in heart rhythm irregularities. However, ever since then the evidence linking the consumption of omega-3’s and heart health have grown more obscure. Research conducted on test groups either contradicted the evidence or failed to uphold it, and this new 2012 study performed in Greece sought to examine all the studies done on the subject back to 1989 in order to deduce the truth.
The New Study
Led by Evangelos Rizos, a medical professor at the University Hospital of Ioannina in Greece, the study looked at research done as far back as 1989, for a total of 18 clinical trials that had patients randomly either take omega-3 fatty acids in their diets or not. It also included studies where patients were advised to include more fatty fish in their nutrition plans.
One possible explanation for why no connection has been conclusively found between fatty fish consumption and heart health says Alice Lichtenstein, the director of Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston is because people make the erroneous assumption that a positive quality in a food can be effectively translated into pill form. “What we have learned over the years is you can’t think about individual nutrients in isolation,” she said.
What this means is that while the consumption of fatty fish can have a benefit on your health and heart, it may not be solely because of Omega-3’s. Rather, it may be because you are eating fish instead of red meat, or any other less salutary food item. It could be due to the particular combination of nutrients found within fish, which are less effective when isolated and sold in pill form.
What Does This Mean For You?
This may come as bad news to the Americans who in 2011 spent $1.1 billion on fish pills, and to the supplement industry that is reaping the benefits of the popularity of fish pills. The advice from both the Greek researchers and Ms. Lichtenstein is for Americans to consume more fatty fish each week, at least two portions, and try to round out there diet with plenty of vegetables, other forms of protein, whole grains, and to exercise and be more active. Seeking to defeat illness with magic pills is not going to work when it comes to omega-3’s and heart disease, though they were also clear to note that there does not seem to be any negatives associated with its consumption either.