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.