Easily one of the most commonly taken supplements, omega-3 fatty acids – say, in the form of cod liver oil tablets – are often thought to have a wide range of medical benefits. Over the years, though, evidence to seriously substantiate these claims have looked increasingly elusive.
Now, a new massive review headed by the nonprofit group Cochrane has concluded that they don’t have any benefits to heart health. There are some caveats, but this study nevertheless pairs nicely with a host of pre-existing and brand-new research that suggests the best way to improve your heart health is to have a diet rich in oily fish instead of taking those massive capsules.
The respected research group conducted a review of 79 randomized trials of omega-3 of varying quality. In total, these trials involved 112,059 people from all backgrounds, with various sexes, health statuses, and geographical placements, from North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.
In general, they compared people on regular diets to those taking daily omega-3 supplements – and, in a handful of cases, extra oily fish instead.
It seemed that additional supplies of the fatty acids made no change to people’s cardiovascular health. As reported by BBC News, the team said that anyone taking additional omega-3 had a 0.001 percent chance of seeing any such benefit.
The only benefit came from those taking alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in nuts, seeds, and plant oils. Those taking ALA – part of the family of fatty acids under the omega-3 umbrella – had only a very, very small benefit, however.
Various nutrition experts and cardiovascular researchers assessed the study, and gave a range of opinions. Some point out that this fits with previous research on diets, in that no single element tends to have a major effect on health. Others, who explain that previous data seemed to point to beneficial effects, note that this “somewhat surprising” study must nevertheless be taken seriously.
Other experts pointed out that the lack of data on omega-3 delivered via oily fish somewhat limits the study. One particular critic opined that the supplements only gave a very small – and perhaps insignificant increase – in the people’s omega-3 levels, so it shouldn’t be a shock to see little benefit.
In any case, this review doesn’t stand in isolation. This isn’t the first time omega-3’s benefits have been questioned.
There’s little solid evidence to suggest that omega-3 boosts your cognitive functioning or protects against neurodegenerative conditions, according to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). There’s also insubstantial evidence that it helps alleviate depression, or that it slows down visual deterioration.
Evidence relating to heart health also shows mixed results. Some preliminary studies hint that it does, and clearly, others suggest it doesn’t. In fact, the interest in the benefits of omega-3-packed oily fish began when scientists found that Eskimo people, whose diet is rich in the stuff, had fewer than average heart attacks and strokes.
Oily fish, indubitably, are great. They are profound sources of protein and vitamins, and omega-3, which is certainly good for your health: the fatty acids are important for our normal metabolism.
Saying that, both the NHS and the US National Institutes of Health point out that studies linking high intakes of fish and many health benefits can’t tell whether it’s because of the omega-3, other parts of the fish, related lifestyle choices, or a combination.
This latest study, then, suggests that companies are by far overselling the benefits of omega-3. Eat (oily) fish – it’s great for your health – and omega-3-rich vegetables, but don’t take omega-3 supplements and expect the same health boosts.
It’s worth noting that, with very few exceptions, most supplements are already known to be pointless. If a clinical practitioner says you need supplements for a medical condition, then that’s different, but don’t waste your money buying tablets that scientific research constantly suggests are pointless.
Victoria Taylor, a senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation – who also looked at this latest review – summed things up nicely.
“Our message is clear,” she explained. “Rather than taking supplements to reduce your risk of having another heart attack or stroke, you should focus on eating a healthy, balanced, Mediterranean-style diet.”