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Media Misreports Omega-3 Heart Study
9/12/2011
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Sadly, you can’t trust most news headlines about health-nutrition studies.
 
That’s clearly the case with an epidemiological study from Denmark, which compared the self-reported diets of 3,277 people with their heart health over a 23-year period.
 
Occasionally, a study fails to link omega-3s from fish to a particular heart-health benefit, or finds that they only benefited a certain gender or age group.
 
That happened in the case of the newly reported Danish diet-health survey, whose one unusual, negative finding generated many misleading headlines.
 
Sadly, the media almost universally accentuated that study’s main negative finding – related to men – and ignored its equally important positive outcome for women.
 
Omega-3s benefited women, not men; No one was helped by plant-source omega-3s
The Danish study looked only at whether fish-source and plant-source omega-3 fatty acids could protect against heart disease (Vedtofte MS et al. 2011).
 
It did not try to see whether omega-3s of any kind reduced the rate of “adverse cardiovascular events”, such as heart attacks and strokes.
 
The Danish team’s major positive finding was that women with higher estimated intakes of omega-3s from fish and/or fish oil were less likely to develop coronary heart disease over two decades.
 
But you’d never know that from all the headlines we’ve seen … which ignored all prior evidence and reflected only the two negative findings:
Unlike women, men showed no benefit from higher estimated intakes of omega-3s.
Higher intakes of plant-source omega-3s were not linked to lower heart risk for men or women.
 
While the men in this study showed no heart benefit from any form of omega-3s, most studies show benefit among men and women alike … usually with smaller differences than those detected in this population study.
 
Gender-related differences in omega-3s’ effects on heart health are not surprising, given the differences in how cardiovascular disease manifests in men and women.
 
For more on those distinctions, see “Women's Heart Problems Found Distinct from Men's.”
 
Fish-source omega-3s clearly help hearts
By now, the body of evidence affirming omega-3s’ role in optimizing heart health and reducing heart risks approaches overwhelming status.
 
This evidence comes from several large, well-designed clinical trials and many dozens of epidemiological studies. This picture was affirmed by a recent evidence review (Marik PE, Varon J et al. 2009) … for an overview, see “Omega-3s Cut Heart Risks & Death Rates in Clinical Trial.”
 
Importantly, hundreds of lab studies show that omega-3s exert physiological effects that could – and probably do – support optimal heart and circulatory health.
 
Plant-source omega-3s failed for both genders
What about the fact that this study found no sign that the sole plant-source omega-3 fatty acid – a “short-chain” omega-3 called ALA – reduced heart risk in either gender?
 
Some studies link them to minor reductions in heart disease risks, though never to the extent seen with fish-source, “long-chain” omega-3s (EPA and DHA) … the kind we actually need to survive and thrive (Hu FB et al. 1999; Albert CM et al. 2005).
 
That said, the body can make essential EPA and DHA from ALA, albeit very inefficiently. ALA is the only omega-3 many people eat, and they can survive or even thrive on ALA alone if it’s consumed in sufficient quantities.
 
The main food sources of omega-3 ALA include beans, dark leafy greens, flax or hemp seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and soy oil.
 
(Soy oil is a counterproductive source of omega-3 ALA, because it is very high in omega-6 fatty acids … which compete with omega-3s for absorption into our cells and are unhealthily overabundant in the standard American diet.)
 
While plant-form omega-3s clearly do benefit heart and overall health, the vast majority of scientific evidence favors fish-source omega-3s for both purposes.
 
The estimated average daily intake of omega-3s (all forms) among the study participants was 1.2 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men … which are higher than the average American’s intake, unless he or she takes fish oil.
 
 
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