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Fish Oil Is a Scam

Illustration for article titled Fish Oil Is a Scam
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Fish oil, those omega-3 pills that have dominated the over-the-counter health industry for years as one of the most popular dietary supplements, doesn’t actually help lessen the chances of contracting heart disease or suffering a stroke. In a phrase: this is yet another health scam, sheeple.

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Cochrane, an international organization that compiles medical research for the general public to promote evidence-informed health decision-making, published a new study—or as the Guardian pointed out more accurately, a study of studies—determining that the omega-3 fat from fish oil (eicosapentaenoic acid, known as EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA) “provides little if any benefit on most outcomes.” From the abstract:

They [researchers] found high certainty evidence that long-chain omega 3 fats had little or no meaningful effect on the risk of death from any cause. The risk of death from any cause was 8.8% in people who had increased their intake of omega 3 fats, compared with 9% in people in the control groups.

They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.

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Considering that Cochrane pulled information from 79 trials involving 112,059 people (men and women, some healthy, some will various illness, from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia) who were asked to increase their omega-3 fasts for at least a year, it seems pretty solid to me!

But what about those omega-3 fats that don’t come from fish oil? Those are called alpha­linolenic acid (ALA) and are found in walnuts and seeds—those guys “probably reduces the risk of heart irregularities from 3.3 to 2.6%.” From the report:

“The review team found that reductions in cardiovascular events with ALA were so small that about 1000 people would need to increase consumption of ALA for one of them to benefit. Similar results were found for cardiovascular death. They did not find enough data from the studies to be able to measure the risk of bleeding or blood clots from using ALA.”

Hmm, a little bit better, but still mostly nothing? And before you ask—none of this shit assists in weight loss.

The Cochrane study follows another study published in JAMA Cardiology in March of this year, where scientists discovered something similar. Pooling 78,000 people at high risk for cardiovascular disease and tracking their omega-3 intake for four-and-a-half years, the data showed no decrease in cardiovascular events in those who took supplements.

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So, yeah, maybe skip the $10 supplement bottle at the grocery store—you’re not getting anything out of it.

Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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DISCUSSION

HaHaYouFool
HaHaYouFool

Okay, I used to work in guidelines. Let me give a little context.

This Cochrane study is asking a very specific question: do people who regularly take fish oil die from heart conditions or stroke less often than people who don’t regularly take fish oil? The answer to that question appears to be essentially no; the number of deaths reduced is so small that it can be reasonably rounded down to zero (this is called number needed to treat, and I won’t go into that here). This doesn’t tell us, however, whether people suffered less severe cardiac/thrombotic events because they took fish oil, or whether they were able to recover faster from those events because they took fish oil, or whether they had fewer cardiac/thrombotic events, period. And those are meaningful outcomes for people.

Additionally, lots of people take fish oil for the supposed heart benefits, but lots of people take it for other reasons, such as joint health and migraine prevention. We have some evidence that it works for those things, but no definitive studies, so we can’t quantify the effect. However, we are pretty sure that unless you have an allergy, it doesn’t do you any harm.

What this means is we now have pretty good evidence that people who take fish oil don’t necessarily live longer than people who don’t take fish oil. But we don’t know anything about the quality of those years relative to the fish oil. If your doctor thinks you might benefit, there’s absolutely no reason not to take it.