Health and Fitness

New Study Calls the Heart-Healthy Claims of Oily Fish Into Question

A new study just published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology casts doubt on the claim that oily fish (i.e. marine fats) is good for heart health.

“To date, more than 5000 papers have been published studying the alleged beneficial properties of omega-3 fatty acids, not to mention the billion dollar industry producing and selling fish oil capsules based on a hypothesis that was questionable from the beginning.”

In the 1970s, the Bang and Dyerberg study was conducted on the Greenlandic Inuit and supposedly established a connection between their diet, which is rich in whale and seal blubber, and a low incidence of coronary artery disease (CAD). But a recent team of investigators have reexamined this claim, and the results are shocking. Apparently:

  • The Inuit do in fact have a similar prevalence of CAD to non-Inuit populations;
  • The Inuit also have very high rates of mortality due to strokes;
  • The Inuit life expectancy is approximately 10 years less than the typical Danish population;
  • The Inuit overall mortality is twice as high as that of non-Inuit populations.

So how could that the Bang and Dyerberg study be so wrong? Well, the research conducted for the study mostly (and problematically) relied on annual reports to determine which deaths were caused by CAD. And therein lies the problem:

The 2014 study has identified a number of reasons that those records were likely insufficient, mainly that the rural and inaccessible nature of Greenland made it difficult for accurate records to be kept and that many people had inadequate access to medical personnel to report cardiovascular problems or heart attacks. In fact, researchers have now found that concerns about the validity of Greenland’s death certificates have been raised by a number of different reports and that at the time, more than 30% of the population lived in remote outposts where no medical officer was stationed. This meant that 20% of the death certificates were completed without a doctor having examined the body.

Very interesting… Worthwhile to share this information to anyone you know who has been convinced by the media that eating fish is good for their heart! If you’re vegetarian or vegan, or leaning that way, and are concerned about getting Omega-3 in your diet:

Will I get enough omega-3s?

We need omega-3 fatty acids as one of the two essential fats (the other one being omega-6). The healthy goal is to eat less omega-6 fats (found abundantly in vegetable oils and processed foods) given that these are consumed in excess, and excessive omega-6 intake negatively effects how omega-3 is metabolized. The evidence is not convincing as to whether supplementing omega-3 fats in the diet is beneficial. However, if one is concerned about omega-3, whole plant-based foods that have high amounts include flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and leafy greens. By choosing plant-based foods, you avoid the vast toxins found in fish (and even in “purified” fish oils), including dioxin, DDT, PCB’s, mercury, other environmental pollutants, and other undesirables. —

Paper Abstract

During the 1970s, two Danish investigators, Bang and Dyerberg, upon being informed that the Greenland Eskimos had a low prevalence of coronary artery disease (CAD) set out to study the diet of this population. Bang and Dyerberg described the “Eskimo diet” as consisting of large amounts of seal and whale blubber (i.e. fats of animal origin) and suggested that this diet was a key factor in the alleged low incidence of CAD. This was the beginning of a proliferation of studies that focused on the cardioprotective effects of the “Eskimo diet”. In view of data, which accumulated on this topic during the past 40 years, we conducted a review of published literature to examine whether mortality and morbidity due to CAD are indeed lower in Eskimo/Inuit populations compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Most studies found that the Greenland Eskimos as well as the Canadian and Alaskan Inuit have CAD as often as the non-Eskimo populations. Notably, Bang and Dyerberg’s studies from the 1970sdid not investigate the prevalence of CAD in this population; however, their reports are still routinely cited as evidence for the cardioprotective effect of the “Eskimo diet”. We discuss the possible motives leading to the misinterpretation of these seminal studies.

George J. Fodor, Eftyhia Helis, Narges Yazdekhasti, Branislav Vohnout. “Fishing” for the origins of the “Eskimos and heart disease” story. Facts or wishful thinking? A review. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cjca.2014.04.007

2 replies »

  1. Hi Rachel,
    This is a very interesting post. It is amazing how marketing campaigns by big business and agri business have stunted our ability to make common sense choices for our own health. We are so afraid of being ill that we are pumping ourselves full of questionable supplements to try to offset the health suicide we are committing by not eating a plant based diet. It seems ludicrous to think that Mother Nature would not provide us with all the nutrients we need when eating a whole food plant based diet. The only issue might be Vitamin B12 which grows on rotting flesh and plants that are not super sanitized. Since vegans do not eat rotting flesh and do buy super clean plants, a case can be made for supplementing with 5mcg of B12 daily-an insurance policy, as it were. Dr. McDougall states that we have a thirty year store of VitB 12 in our bodies.
    As for fish oil supplements, Dr Will Tuttle’s talks about, in his book, The World Peace Diet, the alarming amount of toxins present in the flesh of fish. Why, for heaven’s sake would we want to ingest so many toxins?
    Of course, I am vegan because I believe in the inherent right of all sentient beings to have agency over their own lives. The health benefits for humans is a perk. My hope is that we will wake up, stop using and abusing nonhuman animals for what amounts to our own pleasure as well as listen to our bodies about what we are meant to eat to thrive. Therein lies our salvation.
    Many thanks, Anne


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