Nutrients & Suplements

Latest Research on Fish Oil Supplements and Heart Disease

By James J. Kenney, PhD, FACN

Short Chain versus Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids


Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and omega-6 PUFA are considered essential fatty acids. 


However, most of the omega-3 PUFA in modern diets comes from the shorter alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plants and especially vegetable oils like canola and soybean.


It has long been speculated that the longer chain omega-3s (i.e. EPA and DHA) found in fish and fish oil may have additional beneficial metabolic effects that may help in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease (CVD).


The Theory That Omega-3s Help Prevent CVD

The idea that long-chain omega 3s might help reduce CVD started when it was reported that Greenland Inuits had very little CVD despite a diet high in fat and cholesterol. It was a study by Drs. Bang and Olaf published in the June 1971 edition of The Lancet that first suggested a possible connection between higher fish oil consumption and better heart health.

This study analyzed the plasma-lipid pattern of 130 Greenland Inuits. The team determined the concentrations of plasma lipids, cholesterol, and triglycerides in both men and women age 30 or older and compared them to the levels in a Danish control group. In nearly all categories, lipid concentrations were significantly lower among Inuits than Danes.

The average difference also tended to increase with age. These authors believed the high omega-3 fatty
acid content of the Inuit diet may have accounted for their lower blood lipid values. Data about Inuit
health back then reflected very few deaths from heart attacks. The beneficial effects of omega-3s were
suspected to be from not only lower blood lipids but also reduced inflammation, less tendency to form
blood clots, and a reduced risk of heart rhythm problems.

Omega-3 Consumption Makes No Difference

A recent review article by the Cochrane group this past July examined 79 randomized trials with well over 112,000 subjects. The trials failed to find any significant reduction in subjects taking omega-3 fish oils or a placebo (2) .

This review article looked at some subjects with and some without known cardiovascular disease. The proponents of fish oil still suggest that they might help certain people such as those with type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM). This is because they often have elevated serum triglycerides. Fish oils do lower serum TGs although they do not appear to lower serum cholesterol levels. However, we now know that contrary to what the early Eskimo studies suggested, omega-3s do not lower serum LDL-C and may raise LDL-C a bit on average. The fish oil proponents also suggest fish oil supplements may take five or more years to show a benefit.

In August 2018, the data from the long-running ASCEND Study were published. ASCEND (A Study of Cardiovascular Events in Diabetes) looked at the impact of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on CVD in patients with diabetes. This group seemed most likely to benefit from omega-3-rich fish oil supplements since they frequently have elevated serum TG levels, more inflammation and a 2-3-fold increased risk of CVD. The results of this trial on the efficacy of omega-3 supplementation were reported by Louise Bowman, MD at the annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology. The results of this ASCEND study were also published the same day online in the New England Journal of Medicine (3) .

The ASCEND subjects (over 15,000) all had diabetes at the start of the study. Patients were given a capsule of either omega-3 fatty acids or a similar capsule containing olive oil once per day. Results showed after 7+ years of follow up that those taking the omega-3 supplements had the same odds of non-fatal heart attack or stroke, transient ischemic attack, or cardiovascular death as peers who got the olive oil placebo.

Consideration of arterial revascularization in addition to serious vascular events still yielded no significant difference between groups. No difference was seen for all-cause death either. Additionally, the omega-3 and placebo groups shared similar rates of non-fatal serious adverse events (most commonly surgical/medical procedures). The results add to the growing literature that omega-3 consumption makes no difference in cardiovascular health, despite the fact that some clinical guidelines continue to recommend taking fish oil supplements to reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death.

"Our results would suggest that current guideline recommendations should be reconsidered" ; Bowman said in a press conference. As it currently stands, many patients have been led to believe that taking fish oil pills will help prevent CVD events and some may ignore proven dietary advice for lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure because they think the fish oil supplements will protect them.

Fish Oil Supplements May Be a Waste of Money

The results of the ASCEND study and the recent Cochrane review add to the growing body of research about fish oil supplements and heart disease. It suggests that taking omega-3 supplements is of no help for treating or preventing cardiovascular disease. It will likely not reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death. People taking these supplements need to know that fish oil supplements are likely a waste of money and might be harmful if people take them believing that these pills will protect them from future CVD events.

One Last Note from Dr. Jay:

It seems like every few years they come up with some new super supplement that will prevent and cure numerous ills and then after decades of research we realize it was 99% hype. Perhaps the "experts"; will now admit they got another one wrong and stop with the fish oil supplement nonsense. Only people who can be helped with supplements are people who are deficient in the supplemented nutrient. Mega-doses of some nutrients might occasionally have a drug-like benefit but then they come with side effects that can largely negate whatever benefit they have. Just eat a largely whole foods, plant based diet and avoid foods rich in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and refined carbs and stay active and get enough sleep and you will likely live a lot longer and healthier life than most Americans.

This information is for educational purposes only. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your physician if you have any question regarding a medical condition


You may also like:


Salmon and Lentils

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CHW, CPT
This wonderful dinner is baked in the oven and ready in 20 minutes.

Lemon Ginger Salmon

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT. CHWC
Salmon is high in omega 3 fatty acids. It is is also a great source of protein and B vitamins, which are needed for energy production...

Is Curcumin a Solution to Control Inflammation? 

By Kristina Pestana, MS,CNS, LDN
Supplemental curcumin can benefit you in several ways: Helps maintain a healthy inflammatory liver, prostate and nerve health...