Over the past four decades, there have been thousands of studies examining the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids – building blocks our bodies use to create cell membranes and maintain the connections between brain cells.
The medical community’s excitement over this nutrient began when observational studies of non-western diets – in Japan and among Eskimos in Greenland, for example – found significantly lower rates of heart disease and other chronic medical conditions. (Humans can’t produce omega-3 fatty acids, so we must get them by eating fish, walnuts, flaxseed and green vegetables.)
Dozens have studies have identified these types of correlations. But earlier this year, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which included 20 clinical trials involving nearly 70,000 people, concluded omega-3 fatty acids did not prevent heart attacks, strokes or deaths from heart disease.
Proponents of omega-3s point out that the authors of the JAMA analysis used the an especially strict standard to determine statistical significance. (Using the typical standard would have found a 9 percent reduction in cardiac deaths.)
But other systematic reviews – like this one by the Cochrane Collaboration – found it unclear whether omega-3 supplements reduce the risk of cardiac deaths.
So, what’s the bottom line? This is one case where the evidence is truly unclear. One challenge is that longitudinal diet studies are difficult to perform because there are so many variables in what people eat over long periods of time. The it can be tough to differentiate between omega-3s consumed as part of a diet versus those taken in a supplement. It is clear that foods like salmon, tuna and green vegetables are good for us – and including them in our diets is a step in the right direction. But we need more evidence to determine their exact effects, and to establish whether it’s worthwhile to take omega-3 supplements.