Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been the golden child of the “healthy” fats world for the past decade, with many major medical societies advocating their use in the treatment of inflammation due to arthritis and to lower triglyceride levels. Research studies examining their role in protection against heart disease, however, have been inconsistent.
In a recently published review of 20 studies of nearly 70,000 patients, however, investigators from Greece reported no benefit to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation when it comes to reducing the risk of death, heart attack, or stroke. Eighteen of the included studies involved administration of omega-3 supplements, while two were based on dietary counseling (JAMA. 2012;308(10):1024-1033).
Before you stop eating salmon or empty your supplement bottles into the trash, there are some limitations to consider. First, many of the studies included people who were already being treated for medical conditions and therefore are likely different in many ways from those who are not. Second, the doses given and the length of follow-up, which averaged just two years, differed across studies. Lastly, only two of the studies looked at dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s possible that consumption of foods high in omega-3s is beneficial due to the presence of other nutrients that work in concert to prevent disease.
So, while the word at this point is that omega-3s do not reduce the risk of death or heart disease, more studies are needed before any benefit can be ruled out.
What should you do? Keep eating wild salmon, walnuts and other dietary sources of omega-3s. Regardless of whether or not they reduce your risk of heart disease, foods rich in omega-3s are generally healthy nutritional choices and provide good sources of protein and vitamins A, B and E.