In the last installment we discussed the media’s obsession with vitamin safety and their willingness to repeat dubious results of junk science.

It is always wise to consider that pharmaceuticals continue to be a dangerous industry. I understand that people sometimes need to wander into the world of prescription drugs. You should have your eyes wide open when you do. Chances are you are the one who will be responsible for identifying the dangerous effects so it is good be educated about the possible negative effects. This is true of supplements too but the chances of having a significant problem are next to zero. Usually you have to work real hard at having a really bad reaction to a vitamin or supplement. If you do, those symptoms will almost always disappear within a day or two after discontinuing use.

I think it helpful to reiterate that you are more likely to drown in your bathtub than have a serious health issue from a vitamin or supplement.

Last installment we talked about the ridiculous conclusion of a research project that stated that vitamin E could increase the risk of  prostate cancer. I will summarize by pointing out that they weren’t even using vitamin E but a cheap imitation. So not to worry. Real vitamin E or mixed tocopherols won’t increase your cancer risk. Now we need to address the equally ridiculous notion that fish oil can increase your risk of some kinds of cancers including prostate.

The list of research verifying the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is long. You would want a research assistant to dig through all of this because it would take you a couple of years of your time to read it all yourself.

So what’s with the headlines? Hold the salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids linked to higher risk of cancer (Time Magazine); Omega-3 fatty acids taken by millions linked to aggressive prostate cancer (Huffington Post); Link between omega-3 fatty acids and increased prostate cancer risk (Science Daily).

These examples illustrate a popular press that is incompetent, scientifically illiterate and in general disgraces itself. They do succeed in scaring people though and I suspect that is the primary goal.
The hoopla comes from a project (I won’t dignify this with the word study) published in July 10, 2013 in Journal of the National Cancer Institute.  Maybe it is not coincidence that the conclusions were from the same project that found the increase in vitamin E intake and prostate cancer risk.

You would think that fish oil supplements were part of this project. They were not.  Levels of DHA were used as an index but the source of that increased DHA was not determined. Higher levels of DHA can result from low fat diets completely apart from any DHA supplementation.

It is actually worse than that because DHA levels were reported as a percentage of total fatty acids rather than an absolute value. In other words, DHA wasn’t even measured but was assumed to be a certain percentage of the total. An example of how this can be misleading would be something like, “would you like 90 percent of the money that Mr. Jones has or 10 percent of all the money Mr. Smith has?” The question is ridiculous because you have no idea if Mr. Jones has $10 or $10 million.

In this project, supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids was not studied. Nobody even bothered to check if these people were taking fish oil supplements. We would need to know three things in a proper study; was fish oil supplementation used, how much was taken and what was the source. Bob Roundtree, MD summarizes so. “Considering the extensive body of literature that supports the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids, there is no credible biological mechanism, nor is one suggested in the article, that would explain why these essential fatty acids might increase tumorigenesis.”

The conclusions of the project ignored the fact that:

  • 53 percent of the subjects with prostate cancer were smokers
  • 64 percent of the cancer subjects regularly consumed alcohol
  • 80 percent of the cancer subjects were overweight or obese

Very specific studies about the spread of prostate cancer were completed using omega-3 supplementation. These studies all showed a decrease in the spread of these cancers with the fish oil supplementation. So again, not to worry, fish oil is good for you. You can either eat lots of wild salmon or take your supplements from credible sources.

It is helpful to note that wild salmon contains two or three times the omega-3 fish oils as farmed salmon. Also some people prefer krill oil to fish oil but most studies indicate that krill oil is good but not better than fish oil and costs more.

I find it helpful to note that Nordic Naturals closely follows the  fish populations they use for harvesting fish oil. Their fish stocks are sustainable so you don’t have to have a guilty conscious about wiping out a fish population for your omega-3 fatty acids.