Hold on to your fish oil pills and brace yourself for scientific whiplash: after years of research detailing the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, a new study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests they might be linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Wait – what was that again? Isn’t this the stuff we’re told we can’t get enough of? It’s supposed to protect us against cancer, not cause it. The people of Okinawa, Japan have super-long lifespans, we’re told, partly because their diet is so rich in fish. In America, we want that too. Your dad has a shoebox full of supplements, fish oil capsules all over the place. That MMA fighter you know swears by them. Ask that random jogger in the park, “Hey, do you take fish oil?” and she’ll say yes (conveniently, she’s already in the process of running away from you). Everybody takes fish oil, because that’s what we’ve been told to do.
The idea makes sense, too. Increasing our intake of fish, walnuts and flax seeds to fight heart disease has been an uncontroversial food tip for many years, and these foods are so effective at keeping our arteries healthy because omega-3 fatty acids, a class of polyunsaturated fats, simply rock. They’ve been linked to reduced cholesterol and lowered blood pressure. Two servings of fish a week can cut the risk of stroke in half. There’s also strong support that suggests macular degeneration is less common in people who eat fish frequently. Other research points to high omega-3 levels as a possible way to fight Alzheimer’s.
Studies have routinely shown that this is one class of fats that we should be eating more often. So if we’re too busy to cook and too poor to eat out twice a week, what’s wrong with taking omega-3s in supplement form?
Are the Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Only an Illusion?
Nothing is certain here, but the new research shows that men with high levels of omega-3s have a 43% higher risk of developing prostate cancer. These results join recent findings from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine that show no correlation between omega-3 supplements and decreased death rates due to stroke or heart attack.
So which is it, science? We’ve all seen this before: one week we hear that eating eggs is a great food tip if we want to lower our cholesterol, but the next week another study tells us it’s the worst idea ever. Why can’t these researchers just make up their minds?
Unfortunately, chemicals are complicated, and food is full of complicated chemicals. The study that links omega-3s to increased rates of prostate cancer had no controls to differentiate between dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplements. Organic living advocates think that the study is really showing the deleterious effects that might come from concentrating omega-3s in a pill, but they maintain that eating a serving of fresh salmon or throwing flax on your salad is an entirely different matter.
See, it’s entirely possible that, by themselves, those fatty acids might fight plaque in your arteries and damage prostate cells. But there are all sorts of other natural compounds in natural foods, and it may just be that they matter. Eating a handful of walnuts will provide you with the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids plus antioxidants that help to prevent the cancer that could be connected to the fatty acids.
Or not. See what we mean? It’s complicated.
Organic Living: Real Food for a Healthy Life
The key to organic living is treating food itself as a fuel for living instead of a source of this particular chemical or that single nutrient. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with supplements, but they shouldn’t be used as a way to funnel one specific chemical into your body at the exclusion of all else. It’s all about balance. If you decide to double down on antioxidant supplements because of the link between omega-3s and cancer, are you really doing yourself a favor? Might antioxidants, when taken in isolation and in large doses, have negative health effects? Some researchers think so.
If you’re looking for the best food tip to help fight cholesterol and heart disease, it’s easy: make sure you’re getting enough fish, walnuts, canola oil and other foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. If you can’t get enough omega-3s through your diet, consult your doctor – maybe you could benefit from a daily supplement. Just understand that this might also carry risks. We’ll just have to wait until science has the full scoop – and then wait again for the reversal.
Will you keep taking omega-3 supplements, or has the study changed your opinion? Do you sometimes avoid healthy foods because you feel you get everything you need from your daily multivitamin or other supplements? How often do you make fish at home? Recipes and time-saving tips are always appreciated, so feel free to comment below!