18 Jul Are you wasting your money on that Omega 3 Supplement?
You might have read in the news today that a new paper has been released looking at the effect of Omega-3 supplementation on heart health.
This study was well-designed – it was a systematic review (which looks at many high-quality studies in one field and analyses and compares their results) and examined 79 papers covering 112,059 people.
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) – we need small amounts for normal functioning of our metabolism. Our bodies are unable to synthesise them and so we rely on food sources to get them.
Most common forms of Omega-3
ALA – found in Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, vegetable oils (ie rapeseed), soya products and linseeds. ALA is converted in the body to DHA and EPA – though this process is inefficient).
EPA & DHA – found in white fish, oily fish and marine algae
It’s used by our bodies in eye health and in brain development and health – with some studies linking supplementation to improvement in clinical depression.
Recommendations for increasing our Omega-3 intake to improve heart health come from research into the Mediterranean diet and others; which were found to be high in Omega-3. The mechanism for this is uncertain but this may happen because they help to reduce cholesterol or help us to maintain optimal blood pressure.
These observational studies have shown improvements in outcomes for heart health at a population level (from diet, not supplementation) and so this new study isn’t likely to change our current recommendations for eating oily fish.
In the past, omega-3 supplements were prescribed to prevent secondary occurrences of cardiovascular events (heart attacks and strokes), however this hasn’t been the case for some years.
What did it show?
The review backed up our current recommendations – that there isn’t enough evidence to recommend taking omega-3 fish oil supplements to prevent heart attacks, strokes, promote overall heart health or overall risk of death form any cause.
They found no benefit of taking supplements for those with cardiovascular disease who were already being treated with medications such as aspirin, statins and medications to lower blood pressure. They did find that there may be a small benefit of supplementation with ALA (added to foods) for prevention of some heart and vascular diseases.
However, the majority of the studies chosen looked at people who already had cardiovascular disease – and so it’s difficult to apply the findings to the general population.
The majority of the studies also looked at supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids – rather than increased consumption from food, as there weren’t enough high-quality studies to show how eating oily fish in addition to a standardised diet affected health outcomes.
So is eating fish good for my heart?
There is no one single nutrient or food that has been shown to show a positive effect on health on its own and this review adds to that consensus. Nutrition in health is multifactorial – so it’s the sum of all that you’re eating, not just one thing or single vitamin or mineral.
So, if you ate only cakes and crisps (or only kale and carrots!) and some oily fish, you’re not likely to have any major health benefits. However, we know that oily fish in general can be a good addition to a balanced diet – and current recommendations are to have one-to-two portions, one of which is oily. These guidelines may change in the future, as sustainability is taken into account.
Eating fish as a part of your regular diet not only provides you with Omega-3, it also provides you with protein, some iron and vitamins A & D amongst other nutrients.
But I don’t eat fish?
That’s fine, even though you can’t get EPA and DHA from oily fish, you can get the ALA you need from nuts and seeds such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, vegetable oils and soya products like soya milk and tofu.
Your body does convert this to EPA and DHA, though is isn’t a very efficient process. Eating a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, grains and plant proteins have all been shown to have fantastic health benefits.
At this time, there’s not sufficient evidence to support the general population taking daily vitamin supplements – including Omega-3s – unless you have a deficiency and / or have been advised to do so by a health professional following an assessment.
Apart from a Vitamin D (10microgram supplement in the winter months: Sept’-April.)
If you’re eating a balanced, wide variety of foods, your diet should give you all the nutrients that you need. Aiming to get that variety and looking after other aspects of your health, like physical activity, sleep, stress management – all add up to complete your overall balance of health.
It’s completely up to you if you want to carry on taking an Omega 3 supplement – but they can be expensive and this study adds weight to the evidence that they may not be effective. There is currently no recommended daily amount in the UK because we don’t have enough evidence of its health benefits to recommend a specific amount.
Full references available on request
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