Fish oil supplements' heart health benefit challenged by new study

Instead of fish oil researchers have advised people to invest in vegetables to keep the heart healthy

But controversy surrounds the burgeoning industry and hype surrounding omega-3 supplements, which are claimed to prevent a host of ills ranging from dementia and depression to heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

A large-scale systematic meta-analysis collecting data from 79 trials has concluded that omega-3 supplements have little to no effect in preventing heart disease, stroke or death.

ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds, and walnuts and rapeseed provide rich sources.

"Either the protective effects of oily fish consumption that are observed in populations are due to mechanisms that can not be reproduced by relatively short-term interventions with purified omega 3 supplements, or perhaps they are caused by other unidentified environmental factors somehow linked to oily fish consumption", says Johnson.

Perhaps the most interesting issue raised by this study is the fact that it seems to contradict strong evidence from prior epidemiological research that has confidently correlated diets high in fish with lower rates of cardiovascular disease.

An estimated £60million is spent on omega 3 supplements in Britain every year - they are sold as capsules, pills and oils, available without a prescription in supermarkets, pharmacies and corner shops.

A new systematic review by Cochrane, an independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers and people interested in health, combines the results of seventy-nine randomized trials involving 112,059 people.

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Most studies investigated the impact of giving a long-chain omega 3 supplement in a capsule form and compared it to a placebo pill, and only a few assessed whole fish intake. Twenty-five studies were assessed as highly trustworthy because they were well designed and conducted. Some, such as The Sun's, gave the impression that taking omega-3 supplements can actually make your health worse by reducing the amount of healthy cholesterol in the body.

Fish oil supplements taken by millions of us do nothing to cut the risk of an early death, a major review has found.

The results will be published online in the Cochrane Library. This includes risk of death from any cause, with the team finding little difference between the two groups - the risk of death from any cause was 8.8% in people who had increased their intake of omega 3 fats, compared with 9% in people in the control groups.

This review was prompted by the widespread belief that taking omega-3 supplements is a simple way to protect the heart. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.

Did the review look mostly at omega 3 supplements or foods high in omega 3, or both?

But the risk of heart irregularities was found to have reduced from 3.3 percent to 2.6 percent. "One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event". Similar results were found for cardiovascular death.

Omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids - acids the body needs to stay healthy. Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, UK said: "We can be confident in the findings of this review which go against the popular belief that long-chain omega 3 supplements protect the heart. Despite all this information, we don't see protective effects". They are one of the most popular type of supplement, with more than a quarter of people who take any kind of supplement choosing omega 3. Oily fish is also rich in nutrients that are scarce in other foods - selenium, iodine, calcium and vitamin D. While we don't have evidence from trials that eating more oily fish will reduce our risk of heart and vascular illnesses, it may well do.

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