Fish oil supplements have long been thought of as one the best simple, everyday products a person can add to their diet to improve heart health. In fact, taking fish oil supplements has become so common that Americans spend around $15 billion annually on the pills. But what are the impacts of this consumption? Are we really protecting our hearts in the manner that we've been led to believe for decades? A report from Slate indicates that, though many Americans believe otherwise, the link between fish oil and heart health is questionable and unproven.
Origin of fish oil
Initially, the fish oil theory was professed by two Danish men who were living in the Arctic while conducting research during the 1970s. Through their immersion in the local Inuit culture, they came to notice that the indigenous people rarely died of heart disease. They wondered why, ultimately settling on the notion that the Inuit diet, rich in fish oil, was the answer.
The issue with that idea is less in their theory that fish oil caused heart health and more in their assumption that the Inuit had low rates of heart disease. The two Danes were never able to prove that the Inuit had fewer cases of heart disease than other cultures. Both of these men were chemists, and while they did study blood samples from more than 100 Inuit citizens, there was a flaw in their method of calculating heart disease rates.
In order to determine the frequency of heart disease in the Inuit people, the Danish chemists had relied on death certificates or hospital records that were obtained from Greenland. The accuracy of these documents was questionable at best. At the time, nearly 30 percent of the Inuit people lived in remote areas that were hardly serviced, if at all, by the public health community. As a result of this, death certificates were often filled out by whomever was physically present at the time of passing. Without death certificates completed by qualified medical professionals, the lack of heart disease being reported did not necessarily mean that heart disease wasn't to blame.
Luckily, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital have taken steps to put this theory to the test once and for all. They've recently launched the Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial (VITAL) study to determine whether the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil do, in fact, provide benefits for heart health.
These researchers have secured 25,000 participants whom they intend to follow for half a decade. Over those five years, one group will be taking fish oil supplements regularly while another takes a placebo. In order to ensure an absence of reporting bias, neither group will know whether they've been given the supplement or the placebo. After five years there may finally be concrete data to support either the validity or foolishness of the fish oil theory first proposed by the Danish chemists.