Life Wellbeing Has fish oil become the new snake oil? The latest findings are in and it’s not all good news
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Has fish oil become the new snake oil? The latest findings are in and it’s not all good news

The latest study shows there were no improvements in intelligence, language, and executive functioning when the children were assessed at age four and again at age seven. Photo: TND
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This week, a new study seemed to put more nails in the coffin for omega-3 fatty acids as an effective health supplement, with South Australian researchers finding that fish oil doesn’t make smart babies.

Our brains need omega-3 fatty acids to function properly and people concluded that swallowing many fish oil capsules would build bigger, better-working brains in their children.

As a piece of 21st century folklore and cultural happening — supported by science that was both suggestive yet inconclusive — the phenomenon of fish oil as a steroid for genius ran wild.

Scientists from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide ran a 10-year experiment, where a group of women were given a daily dose of 800mg of docosaheaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish, during the second half of their pregnancies.

A second group of pregnant women were given a placebo.

The women had their babies, 543 in total.

The fish-oil kids — at 18 months old — showed no superior or accelerated cognitive, language, and motor development than the babies whose mothers took a placebo.

On average, the difference in IQ between the two groups was one point: 98.31 (fish oil) and 97.32 (no fish oil).

Fish oil does not boost your baby's intelligence as previously suggested.
Fish oil does not boost your baby’s intelligence as previously suggested.

The benefits

But don’t despair. Fish oil might be doing fetuses some good after all.

Last year the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a paper ‘Fish-oil supplementation: the controversy continues’ by Professor Karen Simmer, a neonatal researcher at the University of West Australia.

Professor Simmer, running the white flag up on cognition, suggested that further investigation was warranted on the link between omega-3 fatty acids and boosting a baby’s immune system and lessening its risk for allergies.

However, in the January edition of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, US researchers, in discussing their analysis of omega-30 and heart disease studies, compared omega-3 fatty acids to vitamin C.  A certain amount does you good, but beyond that it goes to waste.

As a performance enhancer perhaps that’s true.

Fish oil tablets
The fish-oil kids — at 18 months old — showed no superior or accelerated cognitive, language, and motor development than the babies whose mothers took a placebo.

But high doses omega-3 supplements have some proven curative and preventative health benefits: arthritis symptoms are known to respond well to 10 capsules a day.

And the National Heart Foundation (NHF) advises some people with high risk factors for a heart attack or existing heart disease may benefit from supplements.

The NHF is beating its head against the wall trying to get Australians to eat more fish, because the heart benefits of eating fish two to three times a week are not in dispute.

At least half of all Australian children reportedly don’t eat enough foods rich in omega-3, such as fish and nuts.

The NHF suggests that supplements can be a “good option’’ from a dietary standpoint.

Population studies have consistently found that omega-3 fatty acids cut the risk of heart disease by 18 per cent.

But in randomized control trials (RCT), supplements have failed to show a statistical significant benefit for heart health; a review of the literature led to the NHF to downgrade its recommendations on omega-3 supplements, and no longer promoted it as a reliable defence against cardio-vascular disease.

Immediately, in the media, fish oil became snake oil.

Peter McLennan is Professor of Physiology at the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine and a pioneer omega-3 researcher. His work 30 years ago with rats and fish oil paved the way for human studies.

The NHF bombshell prompted McLennan to co-author a paper for the journal Heart, Lung and Circulation that argued the randomized controlled trials had routinely failed to control for fish-eaters. It was akin to trialling a vaccination on people already immunised.

For two years, he’s charged that the many RCTs that investigated fish oil and heart disease have lacked stringent and measured controls.

If that’s true, then it’s back to the drawing board. Or the fish market.

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