A foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post recently decided to stick his toes in deep water and write about something of which he knows nothing–fish oil. Apparently, in the self-important world of journalists, being a Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent also makes you an expert on health. But his “fishy” story had a stench to it from word one.
The Post reporter admits most nutritionists today agree fish oil is good for you. (And it sure is, as I’ll explain in a moment.) But then he plays devil’s advocate and asks, “what if the original fish oil research was flawed?”
To make his case, the reporter points to a paper published this spring in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, which questions the accuracy of the original fish oil research conducted 50 years ago. The academic paper calls the half-century old research “soft” by modern standards.
But let’s put that original research into perspective…
All research–especially research on diet and health–usually begins with a real-world observation. In this case, it all began in 1968 with a simple observation–that heart disease was very uncommon among the Inuit (Eskimos) of Greenland.
Next, researchers generally test out their observation in a “hypothesis-generating study.” They design a human clinical trial that demonstrates (or denies) their hypothesis.
So, following that initial observation about the Inuit people, two Danish scientists set out for Greenland in 1970 to “discover” the reasons for this “new” finding. And they conducted an observational study.
After five expeditions to Greenland, they concluded that the Inuit were indeed less susceptible to heart disease. And they assumed the unique Inuit diet–which consisted largely of seal and cold-water fish and very few vegetables–was the reason why.
To be more specific, they believed the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil and seal blubber was the factor that reduced heart disease. (Remember, most scientists back then–and even today–look for a “single ingredient” dietary influence. But it’s usually far more complex than just one, single ingredient.)
Of course, research methods since 1970 have improved tremendously. And I’m sure if you go back and look at just about any research study conducted in 1970, you could find some kind of flaw by inappropriately applying contemporary standards.
But the Danish scientists’ “discovery” led to decades of research, which no one can deny has consistently shown that fish oil and omega-3s are highly protective against heart disease. And against many other diseases and medical conditions as well.
Of course, the Canadian Journal of Cardiology paper attacks the original finding because of some minor flaw. But the academic authors ignore the thousands of unflawed, well-designed studies over the ensuing 50 years that show the original hypothesis was indeed correct.
The Post writer doesn’t know any better. So he simply summarizes and regurgitates the Canadian argument. But he does go one-step further and tries to claim the use of fish oil is somehow wrong because of the supposedly “flawed” original study.
This yellow journalism is an exercise in futility and stupidity. It also shows a deep-seated disregard and ignorance of the scientific process and methods. Yet that’s exactly how the story made headlines.
At one point, the Post reporter did say, “The new findings do not discredit decades of research that show fish oil is…healthy…” That statement should have been the end of the story. But if he’d done that, this foreign affairs reporter would have had no story at all.
So instead, the Post reporter went on to repeat one of the Canadian paper’s worst points. They said it was paradoxical to find low heart disease in this population with a high-fat diet, low in fruits and vegetables. They said the Inuit diet, “violates all principles of balanced and heart-healthy nutrition.”
This statement is a glaring example of nutritional ignorance, wrapped in scientific error, and delivered in a fundamentally illogical way. It states that the facts are wrong because they violate a politically correct, unproven scientific theory.
First, if you’ve been reading my Insiders’ Cures newsletter for a while, you know the purely vegetarian/vegan diet lacks key nutrients and usually leads to malnutrition. On the other hand, fish and meats are high in healthy protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Second, scientists should never allow their opinions–or pet theories–to invalidate the scientific facts. But that’s exactly what the Canadian cardiologists did.
Third, even if the original observational study is wrong in some small way, it doesn’t invalidate the thousands of good studies that followed! Nor does it invalidate the original finding that fish oil is good for you!
This whole situation is shameful, negligent, and ignorant on the part of the Canadian cardiologists who wrote this nonsense…the medical journal’s editors who allowed it to be published…and the journalist who attempted to make a “story” out of it.
You have to wonder whether the Post reporter or editors really even read the Canadian paper. It’s just plain lazy reporting. As the say in the publishing business, it was a “waste of printer’s ink” for anyone to publish any of this non-story anywhere.
What a disgrace.
They say a fish rots from the head down, which helps explain the rotten stench emanating from this ridiculous reporting.
There’s no reason to doubt the heart-healthy benefits of fish oil. And you should continue to take a fish oil supplement every day. Just be very careful about which supplement you choose. See the October 2013 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter for guidelines on choosing a high-quality fish oil supplement. If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.
1. “Fish oil may not prevent heart disease after all,” Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) 5/16/2014
2. “‘Fishing’ for the origins of the ‘Eskimos and heart disease’ story. Facts or wishful
thinking?,” Canadian Journal of Cardiology, published online 4/13/2014