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The Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Question: An Editorial

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Millions of people regularly consume omega-3 fatty acids because of the postulated health benefits. These fatty acids are found almost exclusively in fish and have been widely promoted to prevent heart disease. However, now there are studies suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids may not be all that beneficial.

The latest study published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 3,000 people who had high consumptions of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The study reviewed fatal coronary heart disease and the use of omega-3 fatty acids and saw no benefit. (1)

Yet, some previous studies seem to show benefits from the omega-3 fatty acids. So why is there conflicting evidence today?

Dr. Kromhout, who led the research said, "The most likely explanation for these [negative] results is state-of-art treatment with antihypertensive, cholesterol-lowering, and [anti-clotting] drugs. The widespread use of drugs such as statins has reduced many people's risk of coronary heart disease, so in study comparisons, no additional beneficial effect is seen from omega-3 fatty acids.”

However, advances in drug treatment may not be the only reason why benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are overshadowed.

Dr. Joseph Lau, Professor of Medicine at Tufts University and author of guidelines on omega-3 fatty acids from the U.S. Government's Agency on Healthcare Research and Quality says there are three other reasons for the discrepancy.

First, he says, there are labeling problems in the food industry, which do not always distinguish between the short chain omega-3 fatty acids and the long chain fatty acids. The short chain fatty acids have not been shown to be of any benefit. Mislabeling products leads to a lot of confusion.

Another problem is the population being studied. In some Scandinavian countries, fish is regularly consumed so they may not reap any additional benefits from omega-3 fatty acids.

The third problem is that most studies only look at either sick or healthy people and the numbers are very small. In order to see a benefit, these studies need to be done on tens of thousands of individuals.

So where does the consumer stand with all this confusion?

Experts say to try eating fish that contain low levels of mercury, such as salmon. Most tropical fish have very little omega-3 fatty acids and may, in fact, contain other pollutants, which may cause more harm.

In my opinion, there are a lot of nutrients and minerals that have been hyped up to prevent almost every disease under the sun. It is practically impossible to follow all the postulated diets.

For all consumers who want to prevent disease and maintain good health the emphasis should be on eating healthy, walking regularly and not smoking. Simply relying on supplements to prevent disease is a myth of gigantic proportions.


1. Kromhout D et al. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease: do they really work? Eur Heart J. 2011 Sep 26.
Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21933782

2. Balk EM et al. A collaborative effort to apply the evidence-based review process to the field of nutrition: challenges, benefits, and lessons learned. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun 85(6):1448-56.
Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17556679

Reviewed October 10, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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