In 1971, a team of Danish researchers found that an Inuit population in Greenland had lower cholesterol levels and incidence of heart disease than Danes and Inuits who lived in Denmark. A theory arose: The indigenous people’s high marine-fat diet gave them heart protections.
Since then, fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids — the health-boosting star component of fish oil — have been the subject of tens of thousands of papers exploring their health benefits.
Today, the “Eskimo theory” has been largely discredited. “We really don’t know if the Eskimos got heart disease or not,” said Malden C. Nesheim, an emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, who chaired an Institute of Medicine committee assessing the risks and benefits of seafood in the early 2000s, in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. “I’ve been an omega-3 skeptic since doing this study.”
What do proponents of fish oil say it will do for you?
Fish oil is said to: improve arthritis; reduce ADHD; reduce the likelihood of heart attack and cancer; improve high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the so-called good) cholesterol.
Should I try fish oil supplements?
For healthy individuals, fish oil supplements are unnecessary. It’s better to eat a few servings of fish a week, instead.
The largest study — called the Vital study — done by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, followed more than 25,000 people since 2010 and focused on whether taking daily dietary supplements of vitamin D or omega-3 fatty acids reduced the risk of cardiac events or cancer in otherwise healthy individuals.
It found that omega-3 supplements didn’t reduce the risk of major cardiac events in a usual-risk population, but did reduce the risk in a subset of people with low fish intake by 19 percent. The study is considered the medical gold standard.
African-Americans benefited regardless of fish intake, showing a 77 percent lower risk of heart attack. “This could be a chance finding,” said Dr. JoAnn Manson, a director of the study and the chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We do plan to pursue it in greater detail and try to replicate it in a separate trial because if this can be reproduced, that would be a very dramatic benefit to African-Americans.”
Because there is still more research to be done, experts don’t necessarily recommended that African-Americans take omega-3.
If you have some history of heart disease or high triglycerides (an estimated 25 percent of adults in the United States do, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in 2015), it may be a good idea to take omega-3.
The potential downside, because supplements are not regulated, is that production isn’t standardized so we don’t know what’s in them, according to Dr. Pieter Cohen, of Cambridge Health Alliance, who is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
He said that supplements are expensive and that money could alternatively be spent on a healthier diet. As an internist, Dr. Cohen has seen negative behavioral effects in some of his patients who take supplements.
“I have many patients who are like, ‘I’ll take my supplement and then I won’t worry about eating healthfully during the day,’” Dr. Cohen said. “That’s really misguided. Because in this case we have absolutely no evidence that replacing a healthy meal of fish with an omega-3 supplement is better.”
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