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Is the Fish Oil Craze Just a Bunch of Hooey After All?

Is the Fish Oil Craze Just a Bunch of Hooey After All?

Fish oil has long been touted as a reliable means of reducing coronary artery disease (CAD). Chances are you regularly take a fish oil supplement capsule. Possibly your doctor even suggested it to you. Perhaps you regularly eat oily fish as part of a heart healthy regimen.

Sit up and take notice, then. The praise for the beneficial effects of fish oil may be much ado about nothing.

Wait, what blasphemy is this? It’s the conclusion of a study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology in April 2014.

In 2013, scientists set out, in part, to determine “whether there was ever reliable evidence to support the hypothesis that the Eskimo diet provides CAD protection.” Oh, snap.

The Original Study: Lots of Fish Means a Heart-Healthy Life

In 1968, a Danish researcher, Dr. Jorn Dyerberg, was intrigued by something he saw in the Danish Medical Society’s weekly journal. The item indicated that Greenland’s Inuit people somehow experienced significantly less CAD than other populations. Dyerberg wanted to know why.

He and another researcher, H.O. Bang, went to Greenland five times to study the Inuit. They determined that the high-fish, low vegetable diet of the Inuit was responsible for their lower incidence of CAD.

Based on that finding, the billion dollar fish oil industry was born. United States, Canadian and European medical organizations recommended frequent fish in the diet, particularly oil-rich salmon. They still do. All the buzz is aimed at one thing — keeping heart disease at bay.

There’s just one little problem. The original study didn’t really prove any of that, says the newly released report.

Flawed Research: It’s “Very Soft” and “Only Speculation”

“I reviewed this original paper and it turned out to be that they actually never measured the frequency of heart disease in [Inuit],” Dr. George Fodor, the study’s lead scientist, told the CBC News.

“They relied upon some [public health records] in Greenland, and also relied on hearsay. People told them that [heart disease] was very rare,” he added. “So this is very soft, from the point of view of science.”

The new study took a hard look at exactly what science backs up the original suppositions. The research team came away unimpressed.

salmon

“The alleged absence of CAD in Greenland Eskimos is a paradoxical finding, given that this is a population mainly sustained on a diet high in animal fat, absence of fruits and vegetables and other important nutrients,” the study said. “In other words, [it is] a diet which violates all principles of balanced and heart-healthy nutrition.”

So it would seem. As Fodor’s team discovered, it looks like the original researchers focused on state-provided data that told them only 12 percent of the Inuit died from CAD. Unfortunately, 20 percent or so of the death certificates in those cases were of questionable value because they weren’t completed by a doctor or had other problems.

“Considering the dismal health status of Eskimos, it is remarkable that instead of labeling their diet as dangerous to health, a hypothesis has been construed that dietary intake of marine fats prevents CAD and reduces atherosclerotic burden,ö the scientists concluded.

Ultimately, says Dr. Fodor’s team, Dyerberg and Bang’s research “focused on the dietary habits of Eskimos and offered only speculation that the high intake of marine fats exerted a protective effect on coronary arteries.”

The Danes never actually examined the cardiovascular status of the Inuit they were studying. They made inferences based on what now appears to be flawed information, according to Fodor’s research. Others who later cited the original study didn’t look past the conclusions or cast a critical eye on them. Quite the opposite occurred.

Fodor’s research reveals that the Inuit actually experience about the same level of CAD as everyone else does. In addition, they’re somewhat more susceptible to strokes and apparently have a high risk of heart disease. Go figure.

The new study concludes the Inuits’ “overall mortality is twice as high as that of non-Eskimo populations and their life expectancy is approximately 10 years shorter than the Danish population.”

Wondering Whether to Throw Out Your Fish Oil Capsules?

“Most of the researchers never read [the original 1970s] papers. They just took it at face value that what they said is so,” Fodor told the CBC News.á”The fish oil capsules I don’t think will stand up to a critical review. They simply don’t do anything for you. The people should know that it doesn’t help to prevent heart disease.”

So now you’re wondering what to do with those pricey fish oil supplements and all that frozen salmon in your freezer, right? Maybe you’re feeling a little confused? Ask your doctor about this study during your next annual physical.

Now that the original underpinnings supporting the fish oil industry have been challenged, you never know how much the medical world’s opinion might change. Or not. It’ll be interesting to see what happens from here.

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Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock

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62 comments

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6:09AM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

I'm vegetarian and I get all the needed omega 3 and omega 6 fatties from hemp seed oil.. It's much cheaper and safer. Also it tastes good and it brings some nice flavor to my salads. Here is the one I use http://goo.gl/HicVNg

One spoon a day keeps your anxiety and heart problems away :)

Oh, by the way, flax seed oil also contains a good amount of omega 3 & 6 but as I remember, the better ratio of these fatties are in hemp seed oil.

11:37PM PDT on Jun 1, 2014

I found the article to be interesting,and it brings up alot of questions like many articles here,but truly what is the "real truth"?Articles like this can send one on a long easter egg hunt looking under long ago used carpets,like most information one finds,it will likely be distorted and most likely never really finding the "real truth". For myself i dont take fish caps so the end story isn't all that important,except that maybe big business has again pulled the wool over our eyes to make more money off of us.

3:55PM PDT on May 29, 2014

It's tragic that so many fish have been killed, due to a flawed study that has no basis in fact.

4:11PM PDT on May 27, 2014

I don't really have a strong opinion either way, but I would've liked to hear more from the con side in this article.

10:22PM PDT on May 26, 2014

Flaxseed oil is a nonviolent way to obtain Omega-3's, rather than fish oil. According to a national Vegetarian Resource Group Poll conducted by Harris Interactive, nearly 15 percent of Americans say they never eat fish or seafood.

The pacific sardine lives along the coasts of North America from Alaska to southern California. Sardines, once a major part of the California fishing industry, are now considered to be "commercially extinct."

Another species classified as "commercially extinct" is the New England haddock. Ecologists have also been concerned about the significant reduction in finfish, the Atlantic bluefin tuna, Lake Erie cisco, and blackfins that inhabit Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Over 200,000 porpoises are killed every year by fishermen seeking tuna in the Pacific. Sea turtles are similarly killed in Caribbean shrimp operations.

10:20PM PDT on May 26, 2014

The World Conservation Union lists over 1,000 different fish species that are threatened or endangered. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 60 percent of the world's fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock, and flounder have fallen by as much as 95 percent in the north Atlantic.

It makes sense to eat lower on the food chain! Nor can fish provide any help in alleviating global hunger. Keith Akers writes in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983):

"There are signs that the fishing industry (which is quite energy-intensive) has already overfished the oceans in several areas. And fish could never play a major role in the worlds diet anyway: the entire global fish catch of the world, if divided among all the world's inhabitants would amount to only a few ounces of fish per person per week."

10:18PM PDT on May 26, 2014

In an online article appearing in the Guardian on 9/14/2010, entitled "Fish: the forgotten victims on our plate," Australian philosopher Peter Singer writes:

"Let's assume that all this fishing is sustainable, though of course it is not. It would then be reassuring to believe that killing on such a vast scale does not matter, because fish do not feel pain. But the nervous systems of fish are sufficiently similar to those of birds and mammals to suggest that they do.

"When fish experience something that would cause other animals physical pain, they behave in ways suggestive of pain, and the change in behaviour may last several hours. (It is a myth that fish have short memories.) Fish learn to avoid unpleasant experiences, like electric shocks. And painkillers reduce the symptoms of pain that they would otherwise show.

"Victoria Braithwaite, a professor of fisheries and biology at Pennsylvania State University, has probably spent more time investigating this issue than any other scientist. Her recent book Do Fish Feel Pain? shows that fish are not only capable of feeling pain, but also are a lot smarter than most people believe. Last year, a scientific panel to the European Union concluded that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that fish do feel pain.

"Why are fish the forgotten victims on our plate? Is it because they are cold-blooded and covered in scales? Is it because they cannot give voice to their pain? Whatever the explanation, the evidence is

10:16PM PDT on May 26, 2014

In A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), author Keith Akers observes:

"Much has been made over the virtues of chicken and fish in comparison to red meats such as beef and pork. It has been said that eating chicken and fish will aid in the prevention of heart disease, because these meats are relatively lower in fat and contain more unsaturated than saturated fat, thus helping to lower cholesterol levels.

"Unfortunately, these claims are not supported by the evidence. Studies in which human volunteers switched from diets including beef and eggs, to one including fish and chicken showed that serum cholesterol levels were not&nb sp;appreciably lowered by switching to chicken and fish.

"And an examination of the nutritional data suggests an explanation: while it is true that chicken and fish contain less fat than beef, it is also true that chicken and fish contain about twice as much cholesterol per calorie as does beef. Indeed, some seafoods (such as crab, shrimp, and lobster) are exceptionally high in cholesterol content.

"All of these diverse theories have roughly the same dietary implications. Meat is high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and total fat. Plant foods, by contrast, are usually low in saturated fat and total fat, and contain zero cholesterol. Vegetarians have lower levels of serum cholesterol than do meat-eaters, with total vegetarians (vegans) having the lowest levels of all."

2:42PM PDT on May 26, 2014

Since I recently ordered my supply
of vitamins and supplements for
the coming year (including fish oil),
I shall keep an ear tuned to this
development as I won't be able to
cancel nor return them.

1:02PM PDT on May 26, 2014

I ate a high complex-carbohydrate and low-fat diet for decades, and the effects have caught up with me. I've recently switched to a low-carbohydrate and high-fat diet. Already I feel much better. Fish oil, and all natural fats and oils are healthy. It's the carbs -- even complex carbs -- that cause obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

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