Omega 3s: what form?
May 15, 2008 9:04 AM   Subscribe

While there's some evidence that eating the omega 3's in fish, nuts, and seeds is helpful for lowering heart attack risk and lowering rates of depression, is there much scientific evidence, like university studies, to support the idea that taking omega 3 in capsule form is also beneficial? Isn't it like the situation with vitamins: possibly helpful in food, virtually no benefit shown when taken in a capsule?
posted by bbranden1 to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have to question part of your premise - vitamins in capsule form certainly provide benefits. You may be confused by the conclusions that they're not helpful for people who get enough of those vitamins through their normal diet, and the comically high levels of some vitamins (1000%+ of RDV) is pointless, but vitamin supplements are *not* snake oil.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:18 AM on May 15, 2008

Isn't it like the situation with vitamins: possibly helpful in food, virtually no benefit shown when taken in a capsule?

There's little benefit to vitamin capsules because we're getting pretty much everything we need in our diet. if 100% of your diet was, say, rice, vitamin capsules would be much more helpful.

That said, omega 3s are kind of the latest fad. The idea behind 'superfoods' is somewhat tenuous too. The best thing you can do for yourself at the moment is to follow Michael Pollan's advice:

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

In the future, we may have a better idea of exactly waht nutrients in what proportions are best for your health, but right now, it's a very inexact science.

So my advice is to skip the capsules, throw a little fish into your diet if it makes you feel better, and focus more on eating small portions, lots of veggies, and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle (with lots of exercise)
posted by chrisamiller at 9:18 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you start out with a conclusion and then go looking for evidence to support it, that's just bad science. Vitamins taken in capsule form can be as beneficial as food-sourced vitamins - it just depends on the vitamin. Some studies based around vitamin A and vitamin E (if memory serves) have shown that supplements can do more harm than good.

A lot of omega 3 capsules are basically just fish oil, so the point is probably moot anyway.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:25 AM on May 15, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, I will be asking about "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants." next week, specifically about his rec that we eat a much wider variety of plants and a lot more leaves. Where are all those leaf recipes. But that's for next week.
posted by bbranden1 at 9:28 AM on May 15, 2008

Vitamins in supplement form and foods that are enriched with vitamins and minerals (cereal, milk juice, salt, etc.) are most certainly beneficial to a great deal of people.

Stephen Ilardi from the University of Kansas conducted a depression study using Omega 3 in capsule form. This study uses Omega 3s in conjuction with other treatments, such as sunlight exposure and exercise.

"So far the program has treated 31 clinically depressed adults. Ilardi is impressed with the results: 86 percent recovered fully or had a significant reduction in symptoms"

I'm going to guess that most studies do use Omega-3s in capsule form for control purposes. Just a guess.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:28 AM on May 15, 2008

Omega-3 supplements are flax, fish, or hemp oil. So, as le morte said, the point is moot.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:31 AM on May 15, 2008

Omega-3 supplements are flax, fish, or hemp oil. So, as le morte said, the point is moot.

Pardon my ignorance but I want to make sure I understand this. When you say that the point is moot, does that mean that because the supplement is basically fish oil, it's the same as getting the omega-3's from eating fish?

Or am I missing the point?
posted by cjets at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2008

I don't know about how they process fish oil so I can't say. But flax oil is just like eating flax seed without the seed... if that makes any sense.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:04 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Actually, snake oil does have some Omega-3 acids:
" * 75% unidentified carrier material, including camphor
* 25% oil from Chinese water snakes, itself consisting of:
o 20% eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) - an omega 3 derivative
o 48% myristic acid (14:0)
o 10% stearic acid (18:0)
o 14% oleic acid (18:1ω9)
o 7% linoleic acid (18:2ω6) plus arachidonic acid (20:4ω6)"

So maybe Omega-3 is the new snake oil, but in a good way.
posted by rmless at 10:07 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are tons of clinical studies going on to research the effect of omega 3 on depression and cholesterol. Here is a list of clinical trials for Omacor, and another list for Lovaza. Lovaza, the supplement formerly known as Omacor, is a prescription-only pharmaceutical grade omega 3 supplement. Definitely take a look for the clinical trials on the efficacy of this supplement to help answer your questions.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:09 AM on May 15, 2008

You can search PubMed for this kind of stuff and turn up all sorts of studies, some of which are positive and some negative. The problem is that pretty much every study I can find uses fish oil in capsule form, mostly because it's so much easier to measure and therefore conduct experiments that way. This webpage explains why that is probably not a good thing, although I bet the clinical grade capsules used in the studies crazycanuck mentions are high quality. Personally, I avoid capsules and use the liquid form.
posted by Durin's Bane at 10:46 AM on May 15, 2008

Best answer: One of the best resources for this sort of question is the Cochrane Collaboration. They review all the available studies on a given subject and rate their evidence by pretty good criteria, the publish a detailed report. They are a major player in the field of evidence-based medicine. With that background in mind, here are their summaries of studies addressing questions similar to yours:

There is not enough evidence to say that people should stop taking rich sources of omega 3 fats, but further high quality trials are needed to confirm the previously suggested protective effect of omega 3 fats for those at increased cardiovascular risk.

The review shows that it is not clear whether dietary or supplemental omega 3 fats (found in oily fish and some vegetable oils) alter total deaths, cardiovascular events (such as heart attacks and strokes) or cancers in the general population, or in people at risk of, or with, cardiovascular disease. When the analysis was limited to fish-based or plant-based, dietary or supplemental omega 3 fats there was still no evidence of reduction in deaths or cardiovascular events in any group.

And for bipolar disorder:
Omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder

This systematic review investigated the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder. Five randomised controlled trials met inclusion criteria for the review. Only one trial provided data that could be analysed, investigating ethyl-EPA as an adjunctive treatment in a mixed outpatient population. Some positive benefits were found for depressive symptoms but not for mania, and no adverse events were reported. There is currently insufficient evidence on which to base any clear recommendations concerning omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder. However, given the general health benefits and safety of omega-3, the preliminary evidence from this review provides a strong case for well-powered, high-quality trials in specific index populations.

posted by TedW at 10:47 AM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

But flax oil is just like eating flax seed without the seed... if that makes any sense.

It does. Thanks MZ
posted by cjets at 11:03 AM on May 15, 2008

Your two situations are not equivalent: oil pressed from seeds is like juice squeezed from oranges. Vitamin capsules are a synthesized form of the nutrient.
The capsule is just a delivery mechanism- you could also just eat spoonfuls of oil.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:16 PM on May 15, 2008

There's little benefit to vitamin capsules because we're getting pretty much everything we need in our diet.

Woah! That doesn't apply to Omega 3's at all. Depending on what's in you diet will be telling of how much Omega 3's you get. Supplementing with Flax oil is probably one of the best things you could do for your body.(Aside from exercising, not smoking, eating healthy, wearing your seat-belt, etc.)

I like Pollan but I think you may want to read "Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill" by Udo Erasmus. Sure there is a current fad with the Omega Fatty Acids but he has been writing and telling people about them for around twenty years. The book is awesome and breaks down all the info you would want to know about fats, especially Omegas.

As far as quality is concerned it would really depend on the company that produces the the capsules. I usually get the oil or flax meal which are both cheaper. You can throw it on a salad or in a protein shake and they works great. Biotest has a reall great capsulated fatty acid supplement called Flameout.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:31 PM on May 15, 2008

By the way the process in which they refine the oils is usually very damaging to the oils themselves. These processes, at least by companies who are trying to extract the most from the seeds/nuts, will involve high heat and oxygen. Both of which are very damaging to oils/fats. Think of all the trans-fats that are created by the hot fryers at the fast food restaurant. The more delicate fats, Omega 3s, are more susceptible to the cross linking that will create the trans-fat. That's why if your looking to buy Extra Virgin Olive Oil, you should not be buying it in a clear container as light is the third of the destructive forces to fats.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:39 PM on May 15, 2008

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