From Alpha to Omega: Exposing the truth about the recent fish-oil “controversy”

A new report out of Greece has everyone questioning the health benefits of fish oil. And if you ask me, it’s completely irresponsible. Nothing could be further from the truth. But unfortunately, the popular press is too quick to jump on the negative when it comes to natural health. And they often know nothing about real science. So let me set the record straight…

The wide-ranging health benefits of fish consumption, fish oils, and now omega-3 fatty acids have been one of the most consistent findings in all of medical research on diet and health for 40 years.

The real science on the benefits of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been so clear, for so long, that even the American Heart Association and the U.S. government’s own 2010

Dietary Guidelines recommend it.

So once again, this new “research” is just another perfect example of science gone wrong. Where statisticians play with numbers in order to garner the spotlight and get published.

We can thank researchers at the University of Ioannina in Greece for this latest misguided misdirection. They recently completed a “study” that questioned the heart benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. And unfortunately, these findings were actually published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Flawed methods lead to flawed results

These Greek researchers claim they found that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids is not associated with lower risk of heart attack, stroke, or sudden death. But the finding is not based on original research or new observations. Rather, it’s based on the outcome of a meta-analysis. These types of analyses combine data from many different studies and run it through various statistical manipulations (often involving the kind of shenanigans I warned you about in the special report you received with your subscription, Secret to Spotting the Truth Behind the Headlines).

And many experts agree: the design of this Greek study is particularly flawed.

First of all, they included a lot of poorly designed, smaller studies in their analysis. For example, some studies didn’t look at whether the placebo groups themselves had sufficient or insufficient intakes of omega- 3s to begin with. This would make comparisons meaningless. Others didn’t fully consider the sources—omega-3s come from fish as well as supplements.

And those are just two examples of the shoddy research. Lumping data together from a lot of small, flawed studies can never yield a valid result, despite whatever fancy statistics may be used (as I explained in my Daily Dispatch “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”)

Also, many of the studies included in the analysis used inadequate doses of omega-3s (only about one-quarter to one-half of heart-healthy recommended intakes). This is critical when it comes to research involving dietary supplements—and is often done wrong. You wouldn’t expect any drug to work if taking only half the effective dose. The same is true for dietary supplements.

And, since the heart benefits of omega-3s were first discovered during the 1970’s, more and more heart medications have come on the market. Now, typical heart patients with actual heart disease are also on multiple drugs. This makes it more and more difficult to pinpoint the specific effects of any one drug or supplement unless the original study was carefully designed to do so. (This, by the way, can be done by using a factorial design. This is a study design I helped develop while working at the National Cancer Institute. It’s used to test numerous nutrients simultaneously in a manner that might simulate actual diets.)

And now a study in the European Heart Journal shows that powerful statin drugs, for example, actually mask the effects of gentler, natural approaches such as omega-3 fatty acids. With the huge number of people with only “elevated” cholesterol (without any actual heart disease) already taking statin drugs, you can bet that statins were a factor in the Greek meta-analysis. Yet the researchers never bothered to address it.

I could go on. But I think you get the point. This meta-analysis is a classic case of pseudo-science verses real science.

REAL research backs decades of findings on the benefits of omega-3s

Ironically, the negative findings from Greece come on the heels of an analysis at Harvard University that found that thousands of deaths can be prevented each year from adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

And in the European Heart Journal study I mentioned above, researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids did help those patients not already being treated with statins. In fact, the omega-3 fatty acids reduced major cardiovascular events across the board. Even in lower doses.

These statistical “results” from the University of Ioannina, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, are literally all “just Greek to me.” Don’t pay attention to these “Ioan-ninnys.” Instead, listen to the decades of proven evidence from knowledgeable nutrition researchers who don’t need statistical shenanigans to see the obvious truth.

Stick with me for the real science. And be sure to take at least 1 to 2 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.


“Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” JAMA 2012; 308(10): 1028-1033

“Effects of n-3 fatty acids on major cardiovascular events in statin users and non-users with a history of myocardial infarction,” European Heart Journal 2012; 33(13): 1582-1588

“The preventable causes of death in the United States: Comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors,” PLoS Med. 2011 January; 8(1): 10.