Confused About Fish Oil? Here’s Why It Might Be Awesome

Rachel Tepper

Jan 24, 2014
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Photo credit: Corbis

You’ve likely seen the amber capsules of fish oil sitting in jars on a prominent shelf in your local health food store. Some studies suggest they may have health benefits. Their producers, unsurprisingly, claim the same thing. (Nature’s Bounty claims its pills boost heart, bone, and immune system health.) But growing skepticism within the scientific community has cast doubt on the supplements. Some recent research even suggests that consuming fish oil could increase the risk of prostate cancer in men.

Well, throw one more confusing study on the pile.

Researchers supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute examined the brain volumes of 1,111 elderly women, then checked the same women eight years later for levels of the omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil. Women whose test results reflected higher levels of those same fatty acids (thanks to both diet and supplements) were found to have larger brain volumes—the equivalent of preserving up to two full years of brain health.

The results, published online this week in the scientific journal Neurology, could have huge implications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s, which is associated with shrinking brain volume.

So does this mean fish oil is good for us? We spoke to New York University food studies professor Marion Nestle, who was skeptical.

“I wish preserving brain health in old age were this simple and could be reduced to making sure to eat one nutrient,” she told us. “But it rarely is, and [it’s] not likely to be so in this case either.” 

That said, despite being on the fence about fish oil as a supplement, Nestle is all about eating fish. “People who regularly eat fish are healthier than those who don’t,” she said. 

This latest study’s suggestions about fish oil’s effects on cognitive health might have some scientists skeptical, but everyone can agree on one thing: salmon steaks for dinner are a good (and delicious) idea.


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