Don’t take the bait.
Fish-oil supplements, which have gotten some credit for helping prevent everything from memory loss to heart disease, are coming under extra scrutiny lately.
Two extensive studies are now casting doubt on the supplements’ benefits — suggesting that now might be a good time for those supposedly potent pills to go the way of your late pet goldfish.
Fish oil is the most commonly taken natural supplement among both adults and children, with 18.8 million US adults popping them regularly, a National Health Interview Survey found.
And there are some scattered findings that omega-3 (fatty acid), the healthy fat found in oily fish, can be beneficial — recently, prescription-strength supplements (but not your run-of-the-mill store-bought kind) were given the nod of approval for those with high triglyceride levels, according to a new American Heart Association science advisory.
But, over the years, “studies have become less and less consistent” showing benefits for major conditions such as heart disease, says Malden Nesheim, professor of nutrition emeritus and provost emeritus at Cornell University.
“People need to be a little skeptical,” he says, adding that he would not personally take a fish-oil supplement for any health reason.
Here’s a look at recent findings on omega-3.
An August review of studies of omega-3 and omega-6 supplements in the British Medical Journal found that the type of fat found in fish-oil pills had minimal impact on reducing a person’s chances of getting diagnosed with diabetes, or on improving their overall blood-glucose levels. The long-term study looked at 83 trials comprised of more than 121,000 participants. Overall, the trials revealed that those supplements had little-to-no benefit to diabetes patients compared to a placebo.
Another large study, published in July’s edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, investigated several supplements targeted at heart health. It found that evidence for omega-3 supplements such as fish-oil pills had a “low level of certainty” when it came to avoiding myocardial infarction and coronary heart disease. This one looked at nearly 1 million participants in 277 different trials.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January, tracking nearly 26,000 people over age 50, found that taking omega-3 had zero effect on mortality rates from invasive cancers including breast, prostate or colorectal cancer.
Some research has looked at the link between aggression in children and omega-3. A 2016 study of 290 kids with behavioral issues found that a combination of therapy and fish oil helped them in the short term, but by the end of study, the positive effects had faded. In the UK, officials once suggested school children should be dosed with fish-oil supplements to help them behave better. But those in the scientific community widely panned the idea, arguing that there wasn’t enough evidence to support it.
“It’s better to get omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish, which carries all the vitamins and minerals needed to metabolize them,” Oxford University physiology professor John Stein told the Guardian back in 2006.
Although there have been some findings that eating fish regularly can help people think better, fish-oil supplements do very little to improve your thinking skills in the long run. In general, they are a big waste of money for anyone hoping to stave off dementia, a World Health Organization advisory announced this year.
“With dementia, people are willing to do or try anything,” Nesheim says. “But the evidence is not very good, and most people agree there really isn’t much you can do to prevent [the disease].”
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