Omega 3s – The Controversy…or Another Judy Rant

I’m back raving and ranting about bad science writing. (And here, you thought I’d said my piece a few weeks ago, when I carried on about fake news in science!)

Sorry.  I need an outlet to vent, and this is it.  Lucky you.

A big news item in medical science/health came out last week.  The headlines screamed that omega 3s were useless.  Now some publications, like The Conversation, were definitely better in that they qualified the story correctly:  “Omega 3 Supplements Don’t Protect Against Heart Disease – New Review.”[i]  That, at least, is accurate.  A review by Cochrane of 79 controlled trials that lasted from 12-72 months, comparing those who supplement to those who did not [via diet or supplements], found that, “Moderate- and high-quality evidence suggests that increasing EPA and DHA has little or no effect on mortality or cardiovascular health….”[ii]

Now bear in mind:  there are a million potential factors that affect health.  Were the people in these trials omega 3 deficient to start with?  Were they diabetic, overweight, sedentary, eating fast food 3X per day?  Did they already have heart disease or any other major illnesses?  How much omega 3s were they taking?  At what age did they start?  What other medications were they on?  How old were the individuals in the study?

I don’t have the full text of the study, so I cannot comment, but what they actually found was  – no more and no less – that the human studies they chose to include showed that simply adding more omega 3s for 12 to 72 months had little or no effect on mortality, cardiovascular mortality, cardiovascular events, coronary artery disease mortality, stroke, or arrhythmia.

In the meantime, other publications like Business Insider decided to interpret this as “Omega-3 supplements are essentially useless for diseases, according to a new study.”[iii]

Wait…what?  Talking about taking an epic leap from A to Z.

And they were not the only ones.

Coincidentally, a month before finding out that omega 3s were “useless,” Time ran a story entitled, “Are Omega-3s Good for Your Brain?”  This was a balanced piece of writing, presenting both sides of the argument, describing a variety of studies.  “’We have a lot of evidence that omega-3’s may have favorable effects on the brain, but the evidence on dietary intakes and supplements is inconclusive,’” says Aron Barbey, an associate professor and director of the Center for Brain Plasticity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.”  After all, Dr. Barbey’s research “…has linked high blood levels of omega-3s with improved cognitive function and also with increased volume in certain brain structures.”

Some studies have been positive.  Some have been negative.  One professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who published a negative study, states:  “It could be that omega-3’s take longer than four weeks to get into the cells in the brain, or it could be more of a lifelong effect where omega-3 fatty acid intake during your 20s affects brain health in your 30s or 40s.”  In other words – there are so many variables to consider that we don’t have the science yet to make a definitive conclusion.

Fair enough.

This is a far cry though, from omega 3s being essentially useless for diseases.

Now for the irony.

Literally on the same day that those “omega 3s are useless” articles appeared, I stumbled across a new study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.[iv]  Researchers here followed over 400,000 people for 16  years and found that:

“Higher fish and long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intakes were significantly associated with lower total mortality. Comparing the highest with lowest quintiles of fish intake, men had 9% lower total mortality, 10% lower cardiovascular disease mortality, 6% lower cancer mortality, 20% lower respiratory disease mortality, and 37% lower chronic liver disease mortality, while women had 8% lower total mortality, 10% lower cardiovascular disease mortality, and 38% lower Alzheimer’s disease mortality.”[v]

Hahahahhahahaha!  Come on!  That is funny as heck!  On the same day one article comes out saying omega 3s have no effect on mortality another also appears saying the exact opposite!  I laughed.

But the truth is, this sensationalism-over-fact trend is also very sad, and very worrisome.



[ii] Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, Biswas P, Thorpe GC, Moore HJ, Deane KHO, AlAbdulghafoor FK, Summerbell CD, Worthington HV, Song F, Hooper L. Omega-3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003177. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003177.pub3.


[iv] Y. Zhang, P. Zhuang, W. He, J. N. Chen, W. Q. Wang, N. D. Freedman, C. C. Abnet, J. B. Wang, J. J. Jiao. Association of fish and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids intakes with total and cause-specific mortality: prospective analysis of 421 309 individuals. Journal of Internal Medicine, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/joim.12786


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