Doctor’s Tip: Ignore the fish oil salesman
In the last few years, it has become apparent that taking fish oil does not prevent cardiovascular events (heart attacks and strokes) after all. Decades ago two Danish researchers, Bang and Dyerberg, studied the Eskimos and claimed that in spite of eating mainly seal and whale blubber and no fruit or vegetables, Eskimos had a low rate of heart disease, which is counter to what we see in other populations.
According to Dr. Michael Greger (nutritionfacts.org), however, this was not based on scientific facts. It turns out that Eskimos actually have a high rate of cardiovascular disease and in particular twice the rate of hemorrhagic stroke compared with people on a Western diet. They also do not have a long life span, in general. They have had atherosclerosis for hundreds of years based on frozen mummies from as long as 1,000 years ago. When the Eskimo diet became Westernized recently, the rate of heart disease actually went down (usually when a population goes from eating their traditional diet to eating a Western diet the rate of cardiovascular disease goes up).
How could scientists have gotten it so wrong all these years? Dr. Greger calls it confirmation bias, described some years back by the famous scientist Francis Bacon like this: “We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true.”
Fish oil has long been touted as helping prevent heart attacks and strokes, and fish oil is a multibillion-dollar industry. The American Heart Association still recommends it.
But according to “How Not to Die,” a new book by Dr. Greger, there have been studies showing benefit from fish oil but subsequent studies showing no benefit. A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at all the best studies on fish oil and it showed no benefit in longevity, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack and stroke.
And there is a downside to taking fish oil and even eating fish, and that is contaminants such as heavy metals, especially mercury. So don’t waste your money on fish oil. You do need omega 3, though, for brain health among other things, which you can get through a tablespoon a day of ground flaxseed daily, available at most grocery stores.
If you don’t eat fish, just to be sure you’re getting enough omega 3 you might want to take 250 mg a day of vegan, algae-derived omega 3, available at health food stores.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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