Millions of people around the world take omega-3 fish oil supplements. The general opinion for many years has been that these supplements can help to keep your heart and brain healthy, and may even contribute to a longer life. They are commonly taken as a food supplement all over the world, and it’s an industry that’s worth billions of dollars a year.

However, a review by the Cochrane Library has shown that this might not be the case. During the review, data from 79 experiments into omega-3 supplements were assessed, and it was concluded that they make “little or no difference” when it comes to life expectancy. Furthermore, they could even lower the levels of protective cholesterol in some individuals.

According to the Cochrane group’s lead author, Dr Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia: “This large systematic review included information from many thousands of people over long periods. Despite all this information, we don’t see protective effects.” He added “The most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega-3 fats on cardiovascular health. While oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.”

According to nutritionists, there’s plenty of evidence that omega-3 can protect against cardiovascular disease. Health advice in most countries is that it should be consumed as part of a healthy diet; for example, the NHS advises that individuals should eat oily fish at least once a week. Despite this, millions of people are using supplements as an alternative in the hope that they will be a “shortcut” to a healthier body.

The new Cochrane review argues that the supplements containing omega 3 fats like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) weren’t effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks or strokes in the same way as oily fish. And although they did reduce some fats in the blood, this benefit was offset by a reduction in high density lipoprotein (HDL), which is beneficial in protecting the artery walls.

Dr Ian Johnson, a nutrition researcher at the Quadram Institute noted: “Given the strong evidence from previous epidemiological studies this conclusion is somewhat surprising, but it needs to be taken seriously.” And Professor Tim Chico, an expert in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield said: “Supplements come with a significant cost, so my advice to anyone buying them in the hope that they reduce the risk of heart disease, I’d advise them to spend their money on vegetables instead.”

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