Why Fish Oil Supplements May Be a Waste of Money

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Woman taking a fish oil supplement
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Millions of people take fish oil supplements every day in hopes of boosting their heart health. But a recent study says there is little clinical data to support that such a regimen has any real value for most people.

In a summary of the research, lead author Dr. Ann Marie Navar — an associate professor of internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center — states the findings starkly:

“About 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 60 take fish oil supplements, often because they think it is helping their heart. But extensive research has shown that for most people, there is no cardiovascular benefit in taking over-the-counter fish oil supplements, and at high doses, they can even increase the risk of atrial fibrillation [a type of abnormal heartbeat].”

The study findings were published in JAMA Cardiology, a journal of the American Medical Association.

The UT Southwestern researchers looked at more than 2,800 labels from fish oil supplements that are stored in the National Institutes of Health’s Dietary Supplement Label Database and found that 73.9% made at least one health-related claim.

Among other things, these claims suggested that the supplements could benefit the:

  • Heart
  • Brain
  • Joints
  • Eyes
  • Immune system

Most of the claims (80.3%) fall into a category that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refers to as “structure/function claims,” Navar notes. Such a claim cannot state that the supplement actually treats or prevents a disease, but instead may state something such as that the supplement “supports cognitive health” or “supports healthy joints.”

As Navar says, “Structure/function claims are allowed by the FDA, but they can be vague and misleading.”

The researchers noted that in some situations, fish oil supplements might offer limited benefits. Two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — can be used to lower triglycerides in some patients.

However, the researchers examined the amount of EPA and DHA in 255 fish oil supplements from 16 major brands. They found that just 9.4% of the 255 products offered a daily dose of these omega-3 fatty acids that was sufficient to lower triglyceride levels.

In the summary, Navar, a board-certified cardiologist, also notes that although lowering triglyceride levels on its own does not prevent heart disease, some physicians might recommend that people with very high triglycerides who are at risk for pancreatitis take fish oil:

“In this case, doctors should be specific about the dose of omega-3 recommended, and patients should read the labels carefully to be sure they’re getting the right amount.”

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