Here we go again. Studies reported in today's newspapers state that the claimed benefits of having omega 3 fatty acids in our diet are unproven with respect to heart disease.
As someone who eats a fair amount of oily fish and tends to use olive oils and nut oils in cooking, I have never felt the need to make special efforts to increase my omega 3 fatty acid intake. Nevertheless, I find today's reports worrying. They are only about heart disease and not about the many other benefits that have been suggested. They don't tell me what I should now do. I presume I continue with what I think is a health diet rather than giving up fish and cooking everything in dripping. I did note a curious comment in the newspaper report I read which was that people who eat fish tend to have healthier life styles which is why studies have apparently indicated the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids. Presumably, part of this better life style is the good diet including these fatty acids!
So, can anyone enlighten me? Is this a major contribution to the subject or just another headline catching story?
David, I think it's just another Headline grabber. I gave up listening to what these sort of articles say long ago and go by my own instincts. My general policy is: eat a varied and wide range of food as unprocessed and natural as possible. So far when I stand out against current health 'fads' I have always been proven right eventually. Fish has been known as 'brain food' for a very long time. Whether the oils contained in it actively help towards a healthy heart or not, they are far better than loads of saturated fats which actively work against. I certainly shan't stop eating fish!
Re: Omega 3 fatty acids - help!
March 24 2006, 7:15 PM
Thank you for your comments. In one sense, I am just a simple man who, by and large follows your philosophy. However, I am also a scientist and am always appalled at the poor quality of reporting on scientific issues in those areas where I do have some expertise. But as a scientist in the field of chemical engineering, I have zero expertise on this topic. However, this does not mean that I have shut my brain down (presumably I have had too much brain-food fish). So I wonder to what extent the current reporting of the omega 3 question is misleading either because the reporters have got it plain wrong or else, more likely, things are being taken out of context or judged in isolation.
Hence as a questioning scientist but a non-expert in this area I wonder
- To what extent does eating high omega 3 fatty acid foods reduces omega 6 fatty acid intake and is this a good thing?
- Are the many other health benefits of omega 3 called into question just because of this study which is limited to its effect on heart problems?
So, are there some medical experts out there who can tell us intelligent laypersons what the balanced view is on this latest research.
March 26 2006, 4:58 PM
I was advised (here in Switzerland) to take Omega 3 for my arthritc toe joints and it really does bring some relief. Glucosamine, which works for most people, has no effect on me but omega 3 does. So there's another use for it that is hardly mentioned anywhere inthe English-speaking press.
And in our diet we should have a balance between omega 3 and omega 6. Like Lynn says, we should all eat a healthy balanced diet and stop worrying about these one-sided reports. They're like modern medicine and never look at the whole!
Re: Omega 3 fatty acids - help!
March 27 2006, 7:40 PM
I am one of a generation that was given a teaspoon of cod liver oil every night before going to bed. It was pretty disgusting stuff but my mother firmly believed it did us good. Whilst some might consider this to have been just an old wives tale, so too were leeches, & now they are being bred again for use in the NHS.
I also tend to ignore headlines on latest research as they are so often taken out of context & are therefore misleading.
"A little of what you fancy does you good!"
Lynne the Witch
Re: Omega 3 fatty acids - help!
March 28 2006, 6:41 AM
And how often is there big media hype about some aspect of food and diet, which you then see totally reversed in the same press a couple of years later? Of course a lot of people over-react to media hype anyway. Not many years ago they reported (sensationalistically, if that's a word!) that eggs were full of cholesterol and would give you a heart-attack if you ate more than about two a week, which was grossly overstating any problem anyway. Immediately a lot of people saw eggs as being 'bad for you' and stopped eating them. It's now known that the cholesterol content in eggs doesn't actually effect cholesterol levels in the body and that (as far as I understand it) the lecithin content in the egg breaks down the cholesterol anyway. In the same way they reported that a high fat diet would cause you artery and heart problems.....fat was 'bad for you'. Most people didn't get the message that it was saturated fat not all fat, and that even saturated fat was ok in small amounts. Lots of people went hysterical and tried to cut out fat in their diets which is, of course, disastrous because there are various vitamins and minerals which cannot be absorbed by the body without fat. Not only is reporting on food and health very irresponsible in it's sensationalism and one-sidedness, but it's positively dangerous, given the tendency of the masses to take a fact and go completely over the top with it.
Sorry...one of my hobby-horses!
Omega 3 fatty acids - help
March 28 2006, 10:03 AM
I fully agree with Lynne yet again. The tendency of scientists nowadays to release research to the press rather than to submit it to, or wait for, peer review is very unprofessional.
And time and again the idea of a balanced diet containing meat, fish, eggs, dairy produce, grains, fruit and vegetables is proved to be right. We're all different and some of us probably need more or less grain, meat fish etc., than others but the basic needs are the same. Recently "avoid red meat" has been the trend, thereby ignoring its protein, iron, vitamins and saturated fat - and our cell walls need that! I could site many other foods that have suffered the same fate.
Surely the problem is of one-side diets and diets containing too much of one thing or everything that is the real problem. Eat red meat, or eggs, or oily fish if you want, but in moderation. I also buy as much organic produce as possible - meat, eggs, dairy produce and fruit and vegetables in winter (I grow my own in summer). Personally I think it tastes better.
And we need to remember that nutritional science is a new one. There was no nutritional science when I was a student and it is still in its infancy. What is discovered one day is corrected a few months later. It's exciting but we must take it for what it is - fallable!
What we need is a responsible press. And as for these one-sided health reports and health fads - ignore them!
Re: Omega 3 fatty acids - help
March 28 2006, 11:07 AM
I am pleased that my posting has generated so much interest but I don't feel that I am nearer to a satisfactory answer.
It is true, as Mandy says that, some research is released to the press prematurely. But not in this case. The newspaper reports were on a published paper in a reputable medical journal.
The general trend in all the replies is forget the science and use common sense. Well, I am afraid that this is not a line I take. Following this road would mean that we still believed that the sun went round the earth.
Interestingly, Kathy mentions that she was brought up on cod-liver oil. Well, so was I and so were a lot of us in the post-way years when our diet was poor because of rationing. We took cod-liver oil because of vitamins. Why did we tale it? It was not because our mothers used common sense but because the experts of the day told us. And their recommendation was based on the best scientific understanding of the day.
So it is interesting that today there is so much scepticism of science. If a scientific study shows that taking omega 3 fatty acids does not help people with certain heart diseases, this cannot just be dismissed out of hand.
Another theme in the replies is that people are complex and variable so no scientific study can really tell us anything useful. Well, again I dispute this. Sure, it makes the studies more difficult and answers less precise but it doesn't invalidate them completely.
Of course, I don't rule out that some scientific studies give erroneous results. That is in the nature of science but the general process of testing others theories and examining their data, leads to a steady improvement in scientific knowledge.
So, I am still looking for someone with scientific knowledge in this area who can summarise the findings in this case in a way that is balanced and informed because I suspect that the newspaper reports were not.
Meanwhile, I'll keep taking the pills (not true!).
Re: Omega 3 fatty acids - help
March 28 2006, 11:15 AM
I was just talking to David on the phone and I decided to write this. I am hoping to see a full report in the Pharmaceutical Journal this week. Actually David had pipped me to the post (literally and metaphorically, but I will go ahead.
The thing about this report is that unless we subscribe to the BMJ, we haven’t read the article. It is online, but you have to subscribe.
From what I can make out the authors studied a large number of papers to see if omega 3s prevented deaths from heart attacks. They pulled together data from more than 15,000 studies and only 89 were robust enough.
The conclusion, from the authors, was that more and better studies should be done. They haven’t ruled out an important effect on mortality.
They were not looking at beneficial effects on joints etc.
I am interested in nutrition, but some of us are also interested in the science as well.
I was given cod liver oil and malt as a child, but that was for vitamin A and D. That was the science at the time.
The headline in the Guardian was “Omega 3 may not prevent heart disease”. Fair enough.
omega-3 fatty acids
March 29 2006, 5:31 PM
We do know that Eskimos on a traditional diet high in fat have little or no heart disease. Their traditional diet is high in saturated fat, it is mostly comprised of seafood such as seal fat, fish, etc. which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. You might conclude that Eskimos have good genetics and not prone to heart disease. But, when on typical American style diets their risk of heart disease is about the same as the average North American (so how can it be genetics?). It is believed that the key difference is the high consumption of seafood and the corresponding high level of omega-3 polyunsaturated fat in their diet.
When I used to study about the eskimos in school, I used to look at the pictures and presume the body fat was a result of adapting to a cold climate.
The older generation of eskimos consumed a large amount of whale blubber.
My teacher used to live with the eskimos, and she said whale blubber is very tasty. They ate it raw or fried.
Anyway...The eskimo diet and lower risk of heart disease has been known many years befor all the hype about omega-3 fatty acids.
There is always going to be a media blitz to promote any product. It is up to us to sort out the rest of the story, and what is not being said.
Re Omega 3.
March 30 2006, 6:39 PM
I get really mad when things like this are sent out to the general population - I really question which studies were used and who funded the studies !!!
Anyhow - fatty acids are the basic building blocks of which fats and oils are composed - and contrary to polular myth the body does need fat. It must be the right kind of fat however. The fatty acids that are necessary for health and cannot be made by the body so are called essential fatty acids (EFA's) They must be supplied by the diet.
EFA's have desirable effects on many disorders like skin and hair disorders, blood pressure, prevention of arthritis, and lowering triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and many others.
Every living thing cell in the body needs EFA's as they are essential in building new cells and rebuilding others. They are also a factor in horomone production.
There are two basic categories of EFA's - named Omega 3 and omega 6.
Omerga 3 EFA's is called alpha-linoleic acid - this breaks downs further into other acids which would only confuse the issue. The essential fact is that these acids are critical to health and that over 80% of the US population are deficient in omega 3 and I would imagine that UK is no different. Omega 3 has the ability to thin the blood so it would therefore follow that is might just be useful for heart health and ciculation !!!
Omega 6 is obtained from vegetable oils but omega 3 is often missing from these oils. Rather than vegetable oils, omega 3 is found in certain nut and seed oils - the one with the highest content is flaxseed oil which contains about twice as much omega 3 as fish oils. The highest souce of omega 3 in fish oils is from fish such as mackerel, salmon, canned sardines, anchovies, herring, and mullet but Norway sardines have by far the highest amount of omega 3.
Anyhow - I think that the point is made that Omega 3 EFA's are critical to health from the cellular level and it would be safe to assume that any condition that affects the cells would be improved if the cells are given the nutrients to make them function well.
I am a nutritional consultant and get really annoyed with information like this brandied around. Some of my clients phoned me to say that they were concerned about taking omega 3 and like you had no further information to explain exactly how they were essential to the body. There are studies that prove omega 3 does benefit heart disease so it really boils down to what studies were used.
A good book on all this is "Fats that Heal: Fats that Kill by Udo Erasmus. It is a weighty tome = technical in some parts but written to help the layperson understand a complex subject. In fact this book can be quite the eye opener and I can recommend that you browse.
Re: Re Omega 3.
March 30 2006, 9:48 PM
I have to disagree with your first paragraph. “I get really mad when things like this are sent out to the general population – I really question which studies were used and who funded the studies!!!”
I think the general population should know everything, even if they misinterpret it. It is very patronising to try and put it on the Official Secrets List.
The report was a study at a university. It did not say omega 3 fatty acids were harmful, it said they may not protect against heart disease. Going through thousands of papers and studies they got very few papers that stood up to rigorous review.
Has anybody read it yet? I haven’t, as I am too mean to subscribe to the BMJ.
I think the next scandal will be the cholesterol scandal. An eminent nutritionist has told me that women with cholesterol levels above 4 (UK measurement) live longer than women with low cholesterol. There are many products that claim to reduce cholesterol and they do have a vested interest in this cholesterol hype.
Can anybody answer this question? What is the life expectancy of an Inuit? What do they die of? Do they live longer than people in the UK. I have Googled for ages and not found the answer.
Re: Re Omega 3.
April 9 2006, 5:17 PM
I have just found a review of the original paper at http://www.nelh.nhs.uk/hth/omega3heart.asp
Re: Re Omega 3.
April 9 2006, 7:07 PM
I was listening the Radio 4 food programme this morning which was all about fats. In particular, the programme was examining the problems with our high intake of hydrogenated fats and noting that these have been banned in Denmark.
But, at one point in the programme, the issue came up that we are probably having too much omega 6 fatty acids which are present in vegetable oils as compared with omega 3 fatty acids present in olive oils (and I believe nut oils although this was not stated in the programme). But one interesting point made was to challenge the long standing myth that you have to eat oily fish to get high omega 3 fatty acids whereas white fish is also high in these.
I was brought up on fish and chips where the fish was white and was, along with the chips, fried in saturated animal fats. So, maybe this was not such a bad diet after all. OK, had I lived near the Mediterranean, I might have had an even better diet but, at least, I was not brought up on the current range of artificial fast foods.
If you missed it, the programme is repeated on Monday 10 April from 4 to 4.30 pm. You can also listen to it on line for the next few days at
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