Are fish supplements really good for you?


In 2015, The Washington Post ran the title“It’s America’s favorite dietary supplement, even though the benefits are unproven.”

The article was about fish oil, which at the time had become a billion dollar industry. In the years that followed, this evaluation practically doubleat $1.9 billion in 2019. And by 2027, the fish oil market is expected to soar to $2.8 billion, alongside the rest of the booming supplement space.

What happened? How did America go from loving fish oil to really love fish oil? Have researchers finally proven these purported benefits?

The opposite happened, in fact – as Atlantic mapped in a recent profile. Science has long been murky on fish oil; derived from the tissues of fatty fish and made up of that nutritional buzzword – omega-3 fatty acids – fish oil was once hailed as a magic panacea. In the 1970s, Danish researchers studying the indigenous peoples of Greenland concluded that regular consumption of oily fish prevented heart disease.

But the whirlwind these discoveries fueled over the ensuing decades (which has only intensified over the past five years as DTC supplement brands have become ubiquitous), has left a series of questions relevant unanswered. For instance:

  • Which type of omega-3 (there are two) is responsible for the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil?
  • Do you have to eat the whole fish to reap these benefits?
  • It may be less about the fish and more about the fact that you are not eat a cheeseburger?

Fish oil has been around the correlation for some time, but the causation has eluded researchers. Atlantic dives into the nuances of a study where scientists thought they might have cracked the code (it was called REDUCE-IT, and was conducted in support of a “fish oil heart drug” called Vascepa), but in a bizarre, unusually dramatic twist for the buttoned-up world of double-blind testing, the placebo was flawed. This increased the volunteers’ risk of heart attack or stroke, which made the real drug fantastic in comparison.

This troubling saga is still ongoing, and in the meantime, the drug’s parent company, Amarin, has sold Vascepa for $100 million. (Yeah. Not great.) It’s a pretty straightforward representation of how deceptive the industry has become. This also applies to occasional (non-FDA approved) iterations of fish oil.

You can find thousands of articles online that support your hopes for fish oil – lowers blood pressure, this, removes plaque from your arteries, that – but the truth is, we can’t say anything for sure. Your money is best served by buying fresh fish from the market a few times a week. Chances are these healthy Inuit weren’t ordering fish oil on a monthly subscription model 50 years ago.


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