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Omega-3 supplements may not guard against heart attack
It's a tenet of today's nutrition advice, like eating whole grains or choosing lean meat: omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish as well as plant sources like walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, and kidney beans, are good for your heart and have been shown to prevent heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids good for your bones
By now you know that polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce your risk of heart disease. A lesser known type of polyunsaturated fatty acids are the omega-6 fatty acids. Emerging research suggests that it's not just the amount of omega-3s in your diet, but also the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s that is important.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Prevent Cellular Aging
Your cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells, which are created by cell division. Telomeres are DNA sequences, and multiples of these telomeres form a protective cap on the ends of certain chromosomes. As these chromosomes are divided to create new cells, one or more of these telomeres are stripped from the ends of the chromosomes, which eventually leads to the breakdown of the chromosome and cellular death.


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Omega-3 supplements don't prevent heart disease

filet of salmon steamed in a foil pouch, ready for eating

A little over a year ago I reported on a meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials that concluded that for those at higher risk for heart disease, taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements had no effect on their risk of heart attack, stroke, or related events.

I concluded at the time that there was no reason to throw out the omega-3 supplements you might already have: they certainly don't seem to increase your risk of disease. That said, this research underlines the benefit of consuming our nutrients from food, rather than getting those nutrients in isolated, supplement form: better to eat the fish than take the pills.

Yet that meta-analysis was limited to those at higher risk of heart disease: participants in all 10 of the studies had a history of coronary heart disease, a previous stroke, or diabetes. What about those whose risk isn't elevated? Would omega-3 supplements benefit them?

Researchers at Harvard recently published the results of a 5-year randomized controlled trial that compared omega-3 fatty acid supplements of 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids per day with placebo (NEJM 2018;doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1811403). Over 25,000 people participated in the trial: participants were at least 50 years of age (for men) or 55 (for women). About half of all participants were taking medication for high cholesterol, half taking medication for high blood pressure, and about 13% were diabetic.

After an average of 5.3 years (due to rolling start and end dates), the authors compared the rates of cardiovascular events and cancer diagnoses between the participants taking the placebo and those taking the omega-3 supplements.

Overall, those taking the omega-3 supplements did not experience heart attack, stroke, or death from another cardiovascular cause at higher rates than the group taking a placebo. Oddly enough, those taking the supplements were more likely to develop prostate or colorectal cancer (15% and 23% increase in risk, respectively). However, overall risk of death from "a major cardiovascular event" was still cut by 11%, risk of death from heart attack was cut by 18%, and risk from any cause whatsoever reduced by an amount considered clinically insignificant.

The authors also assessed the risk of cancers, overall, finding that the risk of "invasive cancer of any type" was increased by 13% among those taking the omega-3 supplements, while their risk of death from cancer decreased by 7%.

What this means for you

Once again, it seems clear that you are better off eating great food rather than taking supplements, even if you are allergic to their primary form (such as omega-3 fatty acids for those who are allergic to fish or shellfish). If you are not allergic to fish or shellfish, I encourage you to explore my fish and shellfish recipes to find those that you might like: my wife didn't like fish until I cooked fish for her properly! If you are allergic to fish or shellfish, your alternatives include walnuts, ground chia or flax seeds, canola oil, spinach, and kidney beans.

First posted: June 19, 2019