The latest on omega-3s and heart health
The omega-3 supplements industry, who have an estimated global worth of £25 billion, took a serious hit recently when a Cochrane review squashed claims that they can protect you against heart disease. A lot of the attention-hungry headlines in the press were misleading and have left a lot of people confused. If you’re struggling to keep up, read below and we’ll break it down for you.
How reliable is this research?
This review looked at the results of over 100,000 people from 79 well designed studies, so it’s pretty reliable research. These studies looked at whether an omega-3 rich diet or supplement lowered the risk of heart disease. In short, they didn’t. But as always, there’s a little more to it.
What to keep in mind
If you take or have been taking omega-3 supplements there’s no need to worry. They’re not causing you any harm, they just probably have little or no benefit for your risk of heart disease.
Most of the studies focused on omega-3 supplements, not omega-3 rich diets. This is a pretty big limitation because there are a lot of other studies that show populations that eat a lot of oily fish, which are high in omega-3s, have a lower risk of heart disease. It could be that the studies in this review can’t reproduce the same benefits in such a short amount of time or there are other factors linked to eating oily fish that haven't been identified. So you should definitely still aim to eat 1-2 portions of oily fish a week.
A lot of the studies also only looked at the effects of omega-3s in people who already had a history of heart disease. So more studies and reviews are needed to see the benefits of preventing heart disease in heart-healthy populations.
The studies were also mainly from high-income countries, where omega-3 rich foods might be a lot more abundant in the diet. So taking a supplement might have little benefit if you're already getting enough. But the outcome could be different in low-income countries where people might find it harder to get enough from their diet.
Is there still a case for omega-3 supplements?
Omega-3s are absolutely essential to your health — for example, they make up an important part of your cells and help you produce hormones. So if you think you’re not getting enough from your diet, a supplement might still be an option for you.
Also, omega-3 supplements might still help:
Reduce inflammation, improving arthritis symptoms
Reduce menstrual pain
Get rid of excess fat in the liver
Improve mood and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression
Prevent asthma in children
If you do decide to take a supplement, read our guide on how to choose the best one. And keep in mind that omega-3 supplements can interact with medications so speak with a health professional before starting.
In a nutshell
Heart disease is very complex and is influenced by a lot of different factors, like your diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately, omega-3 supplements probably won’t do much to protect you from a heart attack or stroke. But eating oily fish might still be beneficial for your heart — aim for 1-2 portions a week.