When it comes to living healthy, it may be better to do it the old-fashioned way.
According to a recent study, fish oil supplements do not lower the risk of heart attacks, sudden death or stroke. Fish oil has long been known to contain abundant omega-3 fatty acids, which lower triglyceride levels in the blood and reduce the risk of blood clotting. Researchers examined the health outcomes of people taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements by compiling the data of 20 clinical trials from 1989 to 2012. The review study examined results from more than 68,000 people, concluding that there is not a statistically significant association between taking omega-3 supplements and prevention of cardiac-related deaths.
“Omega-3 fatty acid is rare in most foods, so the typical American does not get their required weekly amount,” said Dr. Ronald Sha, medical director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. “The idea is that we can give a pill to people so that they can get the necessary nutrients, but emerging studies show that taking a pill is very different from eating the food.”
Vitamin supplements cannot replace good health habits, said Elisabetta Politi, nutrition director at the center. Programs at Duke encourage people to eat healthier and exercise more. The patients at the center have the option to participate in outpatient consultations, weight control programs and fitness programs.
“We’re trying to prove that there is nothing better than eating right and living a healthy lifestyle,” Politi said. “Lifestyle changes are hard, so we discuss with our clients to see what they are willing to do—it’s a gradual process.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring and mackerel. The average person should consume seven ounces of fatty fish per week, according to the American Heart Association.
Despite the publication of this study, as well as several other studies refuting the benefits of fish oil supplements, the business is still booming. Americans spent $1.1 billion on omega-3 supplements last year, a 5.4 percent jump from 2010, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. In fact, a recent government study showed that half of U.S. adults take vitamins or other dietary supplements.
“I used to recommend eating fish oil supplements to my clients, but since these studies have come out, I no longer do,” Sha said. “The ideal thing is that we help people develop healthy lifestyle changes, instead of trying to give them a supplement.”
Some researchers still debate the effects of fish oil, said Christine Tenekjian, clinical dietitian at the center. It is difficult to judge whether supplements are beneficial with the current amount of available data.
“It seems that people just want to isolate a component out of a particular food because of its perceived health benefits,” Tenekjian said. “Sure, you can get nutrients from a pill, but it won’t matter if you end up eating unhealthy foods along with it.”
Tenekjian noted that she was not surprised by the findings of this study because even though it is true that omega-3 fatty acid has been observed to lower tryglyceride levels, there have also been studies that show that the fish oil pills have no effect.
“My dad tells me that I should take fish oil supplements because it’s supposed to be healthy,” said sophomore Kevin Wu. “It’s interesting how it doesn’t work even though my dad is such a big fan of it.”