‘Here we go again: Exploring both sides of the omega-3 debate’

Jan 25, 2021
The effectiveness of omega-3 supplements has long been debated. Source: Getty.

There’s no doubt there are conflicting views on omega-3 supplements. While it’s been hailed as a miracle drug, especially for those with cardiovascular health issues, a recent study has found it offers no benefits when it comes to protecting against cancer, however there are some flaws in this latest study.

For the study, which was led by professor Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia and published in the Journal of Cancer in February 2020, researchers reviewed 47 trials of adults at a higher risk for cancer, and found no benefit from taking omega-3 supplements. The second report reviewed 86 trials of adults at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and only demonstrated a weak benefit.

These trials combined looked at around 100,000 participants randomised to either increase their omega-3 supplementation or maintain their usual intake. The bottom line of this large meta-analysis suggested that if 1,000 people took omega-3 supplements for four years there would be a reduction in three cardiovascular deaths and six would avoid a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke. But the suggested downside is that three out of the 1,000 over the same time period would develop prostate cancer.

However, there are significant flaws in this argument:

  1. The trials included here were for less than five years
  2. It takes one cancer cell nine years to become a 2-centimetre tumour, and therefore any tumours that occurred during this time period were already present.
  3. Three people out of the 1,000 over four years is hardly groundbreaking information.
  4. The reviewers appear to be ignoring compelling evidence from two major trials and other work that I will mention below.

Last year, a large meta-analysis of 127,477 participants followed for five years showed an 8 per cent reduction in cardiovascular events as a result of taking at least 850 milligrams per day of omega-3 fatty acids. There’s, on average, around 300mg of omega-3 fatty acids in a standard fish oil capsule.

Meanwhile, another trial published by Harvard in February 2019, which looked at 8,179 patients, all at high risk for a vascular event, over five years, showed a 25 per cent reduction in cardiovascular events with 4 grams a per day of pure eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid.

And the Mayo Clinic published a meta-analysis a few years ago showing that people who took omega-3 supplements for more than five years demonstrated an 18 per cent reduction in cardiovascular events.

I’m in no way suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids are a universal cure for heart disease, but I do believe for people who follow a healthy lifestyle that there’s an extra benefit from long-term omega-3 supplementation.

The only caution I would introduce here is if you do have a strong family history of prostate cancer or your prostate-specific antigen (PSA) appears to be increasing over a period of time don’t start taking omega-3 supplements as a prevention in your 60s or 70s.

In my view, the overwhelming data suggests that you should start your intake of omega 3 very early on in life and persist for the rest of your days. Unfortunately there’s still a strong conservative element in medicine that wants to damn all aspects of supplementation without, in my view, looking at the totality of evidence. This is yet another example.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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