Fish Oil Doesn’t Actually Offer Heart Protection, Clinical Research Reveals

Fish oil, long believed to offer cardiovascular benefits, doesn’t hold up in the last decade of medical trials

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Current attitudes about the halo of fish oil date back to the 1990s, when treatment for heart conditions was very different.

Despite the continued popularity of fish oil — it’s now the third most sought-after dietary supplement after vitamins and minerals — years of clinical research overwhelmingly point to a disappointing conclusion: it’s not helping us.

Since at least 2005, some two dozen studies published in leading medical journals have found that fish oil is no better at preventing cardiovascular events in high risk populations — patients with a history of heart disease, hypertension, or other risk factors — than a placebo.

Yet in the last decade, fish oil sales have doubled globally, as the supplement continues to have a certain halo effect because of its omega-3 fatty acids, and have led to FDA approval for at least three types of fish oil for the treatment of high triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease.

According to The New York Times, support for the use of fish oil stems from a series of studies from the 1990s, which suggested that a daily dose was helpful for heart disease patients looking to increase their omega-3 fatty acids. “But since then, there has been a spate of studies showing no benefit,” Dr. James Stein, the director of preventive cardiology at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, told the Times.

What’s more, Stein added, modern treatment for cardiovascular disease differs so much from treatments during the era when those original studies took place, that “adding something as small as a fish oil capsule doesn’t move the needle of difference.”

While some physicians believe there is still a case to be made for fish oil, especially for conditions other than heart disease, existing research offers little insight.

“I do think people should realize that the jury is still out,” said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “They may be spending a lot of money on these supplements without getting any benefit.”

What should you do instead? Try eating more fatty fish, Manson says. 

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