NY Times: Fish Oil Claims Not Supported by Research


A recent article in the New York Times stated Fish Oil Claims Not Supported by Research. I, like millions of people worldwide, take fish oil supplements daily, so I was intrigued concerning these new findings. The article primarily focused on the claims about fish oil’s ability to reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. The article states that although earlier research showed potential, later research did not prove it to be beneficial for people that already had signs of atherosclerosis.

One of the people interviewed in the piece was Dr. James Stein, the director of preventive cardiology at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. He said the reason fish oil showed promise back then compared to now was because cardiovascular medicine has improved so greatly. “The standard of care is so good today that adding something as small as a fish oil capsule doesn’t move the needle of difference,” he said. “It’s hard to improve it with an intervention that’s not very strong.”

I think this is a reasonable (and proven) statement that fish oil will not treat someone with cardiovascular disease better than statins, beta blockers, and blood thinners, but it is still a beneficial supplement I recommend for most people. I don’t look at it as a magic pill to fix what’s broken, but as something you should take long before it’s too late to limit the chances something will break. Omega-3 fatty acids will benefit your health if you add them too your diet early enough. They have also been shown to benefit the brain and nervous system for both the young and old and reduce the symptoms of depression, ADHD, and can protect against Alzheimer's and dementia. Another expert within the same New York Times article, Dr. JoAnn Manson, mentioned that she does not rule out fish oil yet because, “the large clinical trials of fish oil focused only on people who already had heart disease or were at very high risk. Fish oil has also been promoted for the prevention of a variety of other conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression.”

What does Essential really mean?

In general the reason I recommend fish oil is because Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. I’ve found many people have heard about essential fats or essential amino acids, but they don’t truly get what that means when it comes to our biology. They get the part where essential means important, but I think vital is a more apt description. Your body can take all manner of nutrients and chemically recombine them to make something else it needs at the time. For instance, your body can break protein down into sugar for fuel if needed, so sugar is important to function, but it’s not essential. An essential nutrient, however, cannot by manufactured by the body, it can only be consumed. This means that unless you’re getting enough Omega-3 sources in your diet from fatty fish, grass-fed beef, and eggs from flaxseed-fed chickens, you are not getting the correct nutrients you need to operate properly; you are nutrient deficient, which leads to problems. The article states another thing I agree with, it’s probably better to get your Omega-3 from whole foods rather than from supplements, but in general, I’ve found most people don’t.

It’s a cheap way to reinforce your body

I don’t agree with the article’s final conclusion that people might be wasting their money on unproven fish oil pills. Quite frankly I’ve found them to be incredibly cheap, especially when you spread that cost out over a 1-month or 2-month supply. It’s an easy way to provide essential nutrients that your body needs to function. Even with the real dangers of mercury contamination from eating too much fish, U.S. dietary guidelines still recommend at least 2 servings of fish a week. The benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids on the brain and nervous system actually outweigh the negative impacts that mercury has on those same organs. Fish oil pills are typically molecularly distilled to remove all mercury and give you a safe way to get the nutrients your body can’t make on it’s own.

Amy S

I eat a plant based diet. Try to avoid oils as much as possible. Recently, I have been seeing a chiropractor who advised me to take fish oil. I have been but feel uncomfortable because: a.) I would like to get this from a plant source, b.) I want to lose weight and fear the oil is going to set my efforts back. What do you think? He told me I needed these essential fatty acids in order for my body to fight the bad. I am confused and bewildered. Your article was helpful as you explained what an essential fatty acid is but I was just wondering how it plays into weight loss. Thanks

Amy S

sorry I meant he told me it takes good fat to fight the bad fat, and on the other hand I have been told fat is fat (the fat you eat is the fat you wear).

Chris K

It does take good fat to fight bad fat. You can take flax seed oil instead of fish oil, but your body processes it less efficiently so you have to consume more to get the same effect.

You are what you eat, and the simplest way to sum up how it helps weight loss is that your body will release 50% more fat from your fat cells when you eat polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat than you will from saturated fat (which is found in animal sources and processed foods). Your body releases and restores fat constantly, so the more good fat you eat, the more bad fat you’ll replace. Changing the composition of your fat cells will make your workouts far more effective.

Amy S

Sorry one more question, how much do you recommend taking (fish oil or flax seed oil)? Thank you for your response it helped me greatly.

Chris K

You want about 1200 mg of DHA and EPA. So look at the label to see how much of these two fatty acids are in each dose. Flax seed contains ALA which your body converts into DHA and EPA, but it only converts about 9%. Even worse, if you are getting a lot of Omega-6 at the time (like in vegetable oils) then you’re really only converting about 3 - 6%. So it takes a lot more flax seed oil to equal fish oil.

Ena P

What do you think about krill oil vs fish oil?

Chris K

They are both pretty similar. The benefits of krill is the pills are smaller, less chance of mercury contamination, and you don’t get the fishy tasting burps. But if you get fish oil pills that are enteric coated and molecularly distilled, it’s the same difference. Krill contains the antioxidant Astaxanthin as well which can offer benefits, just don’t take it too close to your workout because antioxidants can interfere with post-exercise adaptations.

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