For years the medical community has been aware that cultures with diets featuring a lot of fish have lower rates of heart disease. It led to the assumption that people at risk for heart disease should take omega-3 supplements. Yet a new analysis of omega-3 studies found that fish oil supplements have had no effect on preventing heart attacks, strokes or death.
Taking omega-3 supplements to the bank
Taking supplements is no substitute for eating real fish, which has been proven to improve heart health. Yet manufacturers of omega-3 supplements are in the money because it’s known that heart disease is less prevalent in countries where people eat a lot of fish. A landmark 1989 study found that men who had heart attacks were 29 percent less likely to die within two years when they started eating more fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
But most Americans would rather take a pill than take the time to plan a healthy diet. Omega-3 supplements are one of today’s superstar nutrients. In 2010, the market for products fortified with omega-3 fatty acids totaled nearly $4 billion, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, omega-3 supplements racked up $1.1 billion in sales in 2011.
Fish oil supplement studies
Yet research on whether fish oil supplements help prevent sudden death from heart attack or stroke for people at risk has yielded conflicting results. In an attempt to clear the air, Greek researchers analyzed the results from 20 different fish oil supplement studies that included nearly 70,000 cardiovascular patients.
A rigorous analysis of the data found that heart patients who increased their omega-3 intake with fish oil supplements had no statistically significant reduction in their risk for heart attack or stroke. According to the researchers, their findings are consistent with the majority of major studies on omega-3 supplements.
South Korean research on fish oil supplements published in April also found a lack of cardiovascular benefits in a study involving 20,000 patients. Another study published in June also cast doubt on the brain health benefits of fish oil supplements.
Overselling benefits of omega-3 intake
The research suggests that the supplement industry has been overselling the benefits of omega-3. Yet government guidelines in the U.S. and Europe recommend that cardiovascular patients take omega-3 supplements, usually in the form of fish oil, flax seed oil, and walnut oil.
No study has discovered exactly why omega-3 fatty acids promote either brain or heart health. Some scientists suggest the benefits stem from lower triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood along with cholesterol. It may be doubtful now that omega-3 supplements help heart patients live longer, but most doctors commenting on the Greek study agreed that fish oil is good for patients with high triglycerides.
However, healthy people should think twice about paying $40 or more for a bottle of fish oil supplements to promote heart health. Eating fatty fish such as salmon and sardines a couple of times a week as part of a plant-based Mediterranean-type diet rich in omega -3 makes more sense.