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Fish Oil Might Be a Lie, According to Science

Illustration for article titled Fish Oil Might Be a Lie, According to Science
Image: Flickr

For years, magazines and the unsourced Facebook content beloved by hippie aunts have assured us that fish oil and vitamin D supplements are the secrets to living forever, but according to a recent study, all they might be doing is making burps needlessly smelly.


At a recent meeting of the American Heart Association in Chicago and an online article published by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers in two trials found that neither fish oil or vitamin D actually lowered the risk of heart disease or cancer, according to NPR:

“Both trials were negative,” says Dr. Lawrence Fine, chief of the clinical application and prevention branch of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the studies.


The government-funded study was conducted on 26,000 adults over 50 who had no history of heart disease or cancer.

Some of the participants took either 1 gram of fish oil — which contains omega-3 fatty acids — plus 2,000 international units of vitamin D daily. Others consumed the same dose of vitamin D plus a placebo, while others ingested the same dose of fish oil plus a placebo. The last group took two placebos. After more than five years, researchers were unable to find any overall benefit.

One bright spot for fish oil proponents could be that fact that fish oil did seem to have a “statistically significant” impact on the risk of heart attack, especially for African-Americans. The study found that fish oil could reduce the risk of heart attack by around 28%, though the participants benefitting most were those who didn’t eat a lot of fish in the first place.

The study also found that fish oil could potentially have the most benefit for African-Americans, who comprised 20% of the study participants, according to research leader Dr. JoAnn Manson.

African-Americans in the study experienced a 77 percent lower risk of heart attack when compared to placebo, which is a “dramatic reduction,” Manson says. Further research is needed to confirm these findings, she adds, but, “in the meantime it would be reasonable for African Americans to talk with their health care providers about whether they may be candidates for taking fish oil supplements.”


So maybe it’s not all a lie. Some research suggests that fish oil and vitamin D could also have some positive effects cognitive function, autoimmune disease, respiratory infections and depression, though further analysis is planned to investigate those findings.

In the meantime, the doctors say the best way to get your omega-3s and vitamin D is to just wash down tuna salad on a bagel with some orange juice.

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I’ve enjoyed this site over many years but please stop with the clickbait headlines regarding science and nutrition. The American populace is confused enough about how to interpret the often conflicting scientific studies that come at them daily. We need fewer eye catching headlines and more science writers who know how to act as middlemen between scientific studies and the lay public.

A caveat: there is alot of snake oil being sold to consumers and I am all for calling out the greed in the supplement industry. Just please don’t add to the confusion. Its just one of the few issues that I think the use of snark causes too much harm.