A verdict is out: Omega 3 do not protect against heart disease

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Put that fish oil down, it does nothing for your heart.

A quick search on google about Omega 3 fatty acids and heart disease will produce results like this:

“Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found abundantly in fish oil, are increasingly being used in the management of cardiovascular disease. It is clear that fish oil, in clinically used doses (typically 4 g/d of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) reduce high triglycerides.”

And this:

“Inflammation in the body can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart disease and strokes. Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure slightly, reduce blood clotting, decrease stroke and heart failure risk and reduce irregular heartbeats.”

For decades millions sought omega 3 fatty acid to help prevent heart disease and keep their brain healthy largely as a result of an observational study in 1971 the study suggested that the Inuit don’t suffer from heart disease, suggesting benefits of eating fish and of taking fish oil supplements.But, one study actually showed that men with angina who were randomly assigned to take omega 3 supplements were at greater risk of “cardiac death” than those who weren’t assigned to take the supplements.  There were follow-up studies showing more negatives results but, the fish fever was already in town.

In fact, new research shows it may even lower levels of protective cholesterol.

A review by the internationally recognised Cochrane Library evaluating 79 clinical trials conducted experiments on omega-3 supplements’ health benefits found they make “little or no difference” to premature deaths.

Good to know

For this methodical review, scientists looked at all the randomised controlled trials – the gold standard of clinical research – of omega 3 fats, with duration of at least 12 months. They found 79 trials that between them had 112,059 participants. The duration of the follow-up ranged from one year to eight years.

Within this set of trials, over 8,000 people died, 4,544 died of heart disease, 5,469 had a coronary event (heart attack or angina), 1,822 had a stroke and 3,788 experienced arrhythmia. With these large numbers, we had robust statistics – known in the trade as “statistical power” – to determine the effects of omega 3 on these outcomes. Our results showed little or no effect of being randomly assigned to take omega 3 supplements on any of these outcomes.

They separated out the 25 studies that used the best methods, such as “blinding” the participants and the researchers to which group was getting the omega 3 and which the placebo, the effect of omega 3 on the outcomes was even weaker. This suggests that when there is a reduction for potential bias in omega 3 trials, there is even more clearly no effect of omega supplements.

They ultimately came to a conclusion, “It looks as though our belief in omega 3 supplements over all these years may have been driven by a few flawed studies and our own bias.”

New findings

The report lacked enough evidence to look at whether oily fish itself was beneficial but the omega-3 fats they contain, when taken as a supplement like cod liver oil, had no benefits.

While plant-based omega-3, found in seed and nut oils such as rapeseed or walnuts, did appear to have some benefits for heart irregularities, these were only very slight.

While these findings “go against popular beliefs”,according to Dr Hooper one of the scientists that conducted the study, he added “the most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega-3 fats on cardiovascular health.

“While oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.”

Omega 3 fats are a group of long chain fat molecules abundant in cod liver oil and other supplements widely promoted as helping to protect against heart disease.

These can’t be made by our bodies and need to come from our diet, but that does not mean that more of them is necessarily a good thing.

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