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Fish Tale: Omega-3s and Greenland’s shores

Well…another shining example of “magic bean” and “superfoods” wishful thinking has bitten the dust, thanks to more careful research. It may be a good thing.

In recent years, several reassessments of the heart health benefits of popular fish oil supplements have failed to find a significant protective effect from omega-3 fatty acids. A new genetic study of the Inuit in Greenland revisits the old 1970s finding that started the whole fish oil phenomenon (and salmon farming) and explains a lot of that failure. The researchers found a specific gene variant in almost all the participants but not in other populations.

The gene in question helps package fatty acids from the Inuits’ traditional all-fish-whale-and-seal-meat diet more efficiently to keep blood lipid levels down. Researchers noted another striking effect: participants who have two copies of this particular gene variant are also significantly shorter and ten pounds lighter on average than those without it. And although this gene variant is very common among people of mostly-Inuit descent (today a lot of Greenlanders have mixed Inuit and Danish heritage), the ethnic and racial group with the next highest concentration of this gene variant, as far as it’s been tested, appears to be the Chinese, but only about 25 percent of them have it. People of European descent mostly don’t have this variant.

What does this mean for omega-3s and fish oil supplements in North American popular culture? The New York Times article didn’t go that far, but the implication should be clear: Unless you’re Inuit, you probably don’t have the specific gene variant that helps your body deal with omega-3s, so for you, omega-3s are like most other animal-derived fatty acids–adding more to your diet is just adding more to your blood lipid burden. Rich fish like salmon may taste nice, but lipids are lipids, and calories are calories. Given the likelihood that they’re really not cardioprotective after all, overeating them doesn’t make sense, especially for a population as overweight as ours has become.

Fish oil supplements are probably even less of a good idea, and they don’t even taste good. They won’t really protect your health as claimed, not for omega-3s, anyway (cod liver oil is still probably good for vitamin D, if you can still find it, but most people would probably prefer a mercifully flavorless vitamin pill).  So save your shekels, buy actual salmon once in a while, and enjoy it–but sparingly.

2 Responses

  1. Eat some ground flax, chia or walnuts for omega 3’s, and let the fish alone. 🙂

    • Flax, chia and walnuts are all perfectly okay as food, but I wouldn’t go paying for them or for any specialty food just because of their omega-3 content. The whole point of that study and the larger population studies that came before is that most people don’t have the special fat-packaging gene variant the Inuit have, so omega-3s don’t actually confer a heart health advantage after all. So eat nuts and seeds because you like them and they’re not pork rinds (and because the leftover chia seeds grow amusing “hair” when you plant them in animal-shaped planters), not because you think they’re a superfood–there really is no such thing, much to Whole Foods’ dismay. There’s only food (and fakey processed stuff parading as food…)

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