Sunday, 27 May 2007

Don't be Fooled by the Omega 3 Scam

This article was from BBC website.
The headlines in the newspapers read �Experts cast doubts on Omega 3� BBC.. �The benefits of fish and linseed oils as elixir of life are another health myth� the Times� �The Benefits of Omega 3 Seem Fishy� CBS News.
This is due to a �systematic review� of studies on omega 3 and it�s effects on cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality, published on Friday in the British Medical Journal. This is not a new study, but a study of studies. The authors conclude that �omega 3 fats don�t have a clear effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events or cancer.�
It�s my job to read and analyse the whole paper and it soon becomes clear there is something very fishy going on. The main analysis is on 15 �randomised controlled studies�. Of these studies nine show benefit of omega 3, five show no big difference, and one is shown as negative. So nine for omega 3, one against. The author of the �negative� study, Dr Bemelmans from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands questions how his study could be used to turn this review paper from positive to negative. For good reason. If you read the abstract of this paper (which you�ll find on-line by typing in Bemelmans + margarin) the first thing you�ll find is that this isn�t a study on fish or fish oils, it�s a study on margarine! The authors gave their subjects a margarine containing alpha-linolenic acid ( ALA ) � that�s the omega 3 found in flax � or linoleic acid (omega 6) and found �no significant difference existed in the 10 year estimated heart disease risk.�
The first thing you realise is this first analysis isn�t about the benefits of concentrated omega fish oils, which contain EPA and DHA. The numerous studies that show benefit, not only for those who have heart disease, but also in preventing those that don�t, have given substantial amounts of EPA, which seems to be the more powerful kind of omega 3 for the heart. A mere 5% of ALA is converted to EPA so there�s a world of difference between taking a fish oil supplement and eating an ALA enriched margarine!
Later in the paper the authors do analyse all the studies using fish derived sources of omega 3. They include twelve studies, nine of which show a benefit, one of which shows no effect and two show a very small negative effect. However, combined, in the way that this review analyses the data, this seemingly obvious beneficial effect doesn�t come up as significant.
What I find particularly deceptive I that this obvious skew is not even discussed in the research paper. It really makes me question the integrity of the authors and the journal. Let�s explore that for a minute with a �conspiracy theory� hat on. Last week pharmaceutical drug sales topped $600 billion. The number one best seller was Lipitor, a stin drug for lowering cholesterol. It brought in $12.9 billion. Next is Plavix, for thinning the blood ($5.9 million), closely followed by Zocor, the worlds�s first over the counter statin ($5.3 billion). Next is Norvasc, for high blood pressure ($5 billion). So that�s almost $24 billion dollars for the top four cardiovascular drugs. The natural alternatives for this pharmaceutical goldmine are omega 3s, B vitamins for lowering homocysteine, niacin specifically for lowering cholesterol, magnesium for lowering blood pressure and all the vital lifestyle changes such as exercise. If you wanted to maximise profits it would be worth investing in belittling your competitors. It�s worth bearing this in mind when you read newspaper headlines. That, and the fact that good news sells.
As a scientist this review doesn�t change my recommendations one iota. I�m not alone. Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition, King�s College, London who is often quoted as being dismissive of supplementation says It is disappointing that when the vast majority of the evidence points to the positive benefits of Omega-3 Fish Oils for heart, that one review paper can cause so much concern amongst consumers.� Dr Mike Knapton, director of prevention and care at the British Heart Foundation "People should not stop consuming omega-3 fats or eating oily fish as a result of this study."
I couldn�t agree more. There is nothing in this study that makes me cautious about recommending eating oily fish three times a week and/or taking an omega 3 rich fish oil supplement every day, not just for your heart, but also your brain, joints, skin and immune system.

by the way, have you read the disclaimer?

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