The market for fish oil supplements is worth $1.2 billion annually, and you know what? It’s full of shit.

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I mean that literally and figuratively. The side effects of taking dietary fish oil include anything from nosebleeds to diarrhea. But you’ve been told for years that the precious omega-3 fatty acids in these supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Many labels will also tell you that taking fish pills boost your brain function and prevent cognitive decline. The only problem is that an increasing number of clinical studies say that these claims just aren’t true.

Indeed, your body needs omega-3 fats to help make hormones needed for several cardiovascular functions, among other important things. Your body can’t make omega-3 fats from scratch, so you need to eat foods that are rich in the polyunsaturated fatty acids, like fish and walnuts. There’s little debate over whether eating seafood and nuts offers health benefits. But supplements are not food, and as such, your body deals with them differently. Even the National Institute of Health says, “The health benefits of omega-3 dietary supplements are unclear.”

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There’s plenty of research to back that up. The latest study came out today in the Journal of the American Medical Association and takes on the cognitive effects of fish oil supplements head on. Over the course of five years, the researchers monitored the cognitive function of 4,000 people. A third of them were given an omega-3 supplement. A third were given a supplement full of nutrients found in leafy vegetables, and a third were given a placebo. The results were underwhelming.

“Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t see any benefit of omega-3 supplements for stopping cognitive decline,” said Dr. Emily Chew, who led the study. This, despite the fact that some other studies and advertising at GNC argue otherwise. Chew also made a distinction between the supplements and real food. “We’ve seen data that eating foods with omega-3 may have a benefit for eye, brain, and heart health,” she said.

This is hardly an isolated finding. While eating omega-3 fatty acids shows some benefits, there’s now a critical mass of studies that refute the idea fish oil supplements are good for heart and brain health. “From 2005 to 2012, at least two dozen rigorous studies of fish oil were published in leading medical journals, most of which looked at whether fish oil could prevent cardiovascular events in high-risk populations,” Anahad O’Connor reported in The New York Times earlier this year. “All but two of these studies found that compared with a placebo, fish oil showed no benefit.”

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Even the former head of the American Heart Association thinks the powerful organization should adjust its recommendations. “It would be a good time for that to be updated,” Robert Eckel told The Washington Post. “Almost all studies of fish oil supplements show no benefit. I really feel this remains unproven.”

So why are at least 10 percent (according to the New York Times) of Americans taking fish oil supplements? Because Americans have a hard time forgetting about the purported dangers or benefits of their diet after they’ve had enough marketing materials jammed down their throats. The positive effects of fish oil supplements can be traced back to research by two Danish scientists in the 1970s. Based on limited data, Dr. Hans Olaf Bang and Dr. Jorn Dyerberg correlated the fish-focused diets of Inuits with low rates of heart disease, but some now think the study was flawed. Meanwhile, more studies have shown that eating fish is more beneficial than taking fish oil supplements.

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Regardless of what we learned in the last century, current research seems pretty conclusive. Fish oil supplements amount to snake oil medicine. At $15 to $20 a bottle, it’s an expensive swindle as well. And in case you forgot, taking the pee-colored capsules might also make you shit your pants.

This is all a long way of saying that if you want to reap the benefits of a balanced diet—eat better! Stop taking fish oil supplements. Save your money so you can buy a nice filet of salmon. That’s definitely a healthy move.

Image via Flickr


Contact the author at adam@gizmodo.com.
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