Are claims for curing various chronic diseases with Omega-3 supplementation a health food industry marketing scam?
I have reviewed scores of scientific reports dealing with the effectiveness of Omega-3 supplements for curing or suppressing various chronic diseases. By and large the peer-reviewed studies have not been very supportive of the health nuts who promote Omega-3 supplementation. Is that why those who seek scientific confirmation for the benefits of Omega-3 supplementation get turned off when they read the literature?
You can find the same scientific reports I reviewed by using the “Google Scholar” search engine. There you will find thousands of scientific studies involving Omega-3 fatty acids and their impact on literally hundreds of different chronic diseases. Not all, but most of the reports conclude as follows: A) Taking Omega-3 supplements may moderately improve one’s health. B) Taking Omega-3 supplements will not have any impact on one’s health.
I know many of my readers will be stunned by the unanimous conclusion that Omega-3 fatty acids may be only marginally beneficial. On the other hand most of the nation’s physicians, nutritionists, psychologists, editors and reporters, chefs, and 310 million Joe Sixpacks will just nod in agreement. The unwashed masses have always assumed the Omega-3 thing was, and still is, mostly just another health food/supplement marketing scam. One must wonder, is the mob right this time?
Most of the authors of scientific reports are scientists or advanced-degree students in various fields of nutrition, chemistry, psychiatry, medicine, etc. Universally they believe the American diet is deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids. They know animal bodies need Omega-3 fatty acids. That’s why their studies attempt to answer the following questions.
1) If animal bodies get Omega-3 supplementation will that improve their health?
2) Will doses of Omega-3 fatty acids cure chronic disease?
3) Will the consumption of fish two or three times a week stave off heart disease?
4) . . . and more.
The list of questions researchers attempt to answer is more numerous than the many chronic diseases. That’s because in most cases there are dozens of reports per disease. With so many overlapping studies, why aren’t the positive results of Omega-3 supplementation reported by some reports not being validated by all reports? Could it be that many of the reports are flawed? It doesn’t seem possible, does it?
Determining the Omega-3 Deficiency
The foundation food for all animal life is the green leaf. EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids) are chemical bonds of Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen atoms (carboxylic acid) that come primarily from green leaves (generally speaking) plus other animals with green leaves at the bottom of their food chain. Because animal bodies will not make the EFAs required for optimal body function they must eat green leaves and/or grass-fed animals in order to have the proper balance of EFAs in their bodies. This is why these particular fats are called “essential.” EFAs include Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. A good overall description of fatty acids can be found at Wikipedia.org.
Commencing back in the late 1970s scientists discovered the Omega-3 fatty acids and soon after spotted what seemed to be a natural ratio between Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids in the membranes of cells in animal bodies. The natural balance appeared to center around 1:1 by weight. To test the importance of that ratio experiments were conducted on rats by feeding them various rations to cause different Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios.
The tests indicated that if the weight of Omega-6 fatty acids is greater than four times the weight of Omega-3 fatty acids in cell membranes immune systems were greatly compromised. Plus when the ratio exceeded 4:1 some chronic diseases actually started occurring or the symptoms of diseases that had been induced became more severe. Consequently it was determined that when the Omega-6 to Omega-3 (O6 to O3) ratio exceeded 4:1 mental and physical body functions can be measurably impaired. Concurrently with the experiments on rats people were analyzed and alarmingly most individuals had ratios that were higher than 10:1. Many were in the 20:1 to 30:1 range! Scientists concluded then that the American diet was deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids.
This ground breaking work during the 1980s showed how to determine if an Omega-3 deficiency actually existed in either one person or a population. It is accomplished by analyzing their fatty acid compositions and noting the ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. If the ratio is 1:1 there is no Omega-3 deficiency nor is there an Omega-6 deficiency. If the ratio is 3:1 in favor of Omega-6, there is only a slight Omega-3 deficiency. A ratio of 10:1 is definitely a problem. If the ratio is 15:1 in favor of Omega-6 there is an acute deficiency. If the ratio is 20:1 or even higher, it is a very serious deficiency.
Incredibly, the majority of reports attempting to analyze the effectiveness of Omega-3 supplementation have a common flaw. They do not determine the severity of the Omega-3 deficiency in their subjects at the beginning or the conclusion of their studies. They only rate the symptoms of the various diseases studied. This is astounding because without proper measurements of the Omega-3 deficiency how can their reports draw conclusions one way or the other?
In most reports, flawed or not, subjects are usually selected based on one particular chronic disease they have in common. Then the researchers have their subjects take Omega-3 supplements or eat fish, or whatever else they think will provide Omega-3 fatty acids. Some even have their groups eat walnuts! In some cases groups of subjects take placebos. After a designated time period they check back with their subjects to see if they can identify changes in their chronic disease symptoms. Some even monitor how many subjects die while their studies are underway. Unfortunately since the majority of the studies do not determine the Omega-3 deficiencies of their subjects they cannot make valid conclusions. These studies are perfect examples of Bad Science.
Even in some of the flawed studies researchers have detected some improvement in the symptoms for the indicated chronic diseases and attributed it to Omega-3 supplementation. In other flawed reports (focused on the same disease) no changes in the symptoms were noted or they were worse. In the reports that indicated some positive change the typical conclusion was that Omega-3 supplementation does not do any harm while it only has a small positive impact on the symptoms of the disease being studied. When no improvements are noted it was assumed Omega-3 supplementation had no impact on that particular chronic disease and tests to the contrary are flawed.
There are many forms of bad science. One of the most egregious is improper measurements or no measurements whatsoever. The most prevalent mistake in bad science regarding Omega-3s is the lack of measurements!!! Look at the reports. If the researchers did not measure the degree of Omega-3 deficiency at the beginning and ending of their tests nor did they catalog the daily diets for each subject in the test, they wasted money, wasted everyone’s time, and discredited the scientific community.
How to Properly Measure Omega-3 Effectiveness
To conduct a valid Omega-3 study three primary measurements are required for each individual in the study. One set of measurements determines the O6 to O3 ratio (Omega-3 deficiency) at the beginning and ending of the test. The second set of measurements judges the severity of the subject’s symptoms for the specified chronic disease at the beginning and ending of the test. The third measurement catalogs the daily diet for each individual during the testing period.
To assess a disease and it’s severity a medical professional must evaluate each participant using conventional methods. Plus, any additional disease an individual has, including obesity, should be noted.
Based on individual measurements for disease and the severity of the Omega-3 deficiency the researcher can set up many categories for comparing not only group performance but individual performance. This dual approach is of paramount importance for two reasons. The first being not all individuals will eat the same diet. Consequently, in spite of Omega-3 supplementation some participants may see their deficiency grow worse because of the foods they eat during the test period. Secondly, in the group there may be large individual differences in the degree of their Omega-3 deficiency at the beginning and then again at the end of the trial period. In other words some participants will exhibit far less change in their deficiency while others for more. The degree of change, even though it may not alleviate the deficiency, may also impact chronic disease symptoms and have a bearing on the conclusions.
As you can see, if an entire group is not broken down into various subgroups, the average response of the entire group may be no change in health overall with some slight improvement in health noted for a couple of participants. Therefore the conclusion is that Omega-3 supplementation MAY HELP SOME but not all people. But why?
Let’s put this in numerical terms for one individual. For instance, assume an individual in a test group starts the test with today’s typical O6 to O3 ratio of 20:1. If at the end of the test his ratio is 16:1, there should be very little or no change in the subject’s health because he still has a critical deficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids. If his ratio is 8:1, there is still a deficiency but there might be some changes in his symptoms. If at the end of the study his ratio is 2:1 or lower, meaningful change has occurred because there is no longer an Omega-3 deficiency and conclusions regarding the impact of a diet high in Omega-3s should be valid pro or con.
Another important grouping is one that compares the severity of disease with the beginning and ending O6 to O3 ratios. For instance there should be groupings for over 30:1, between 25:1 to 29:1, 19:1 to 24:1, 14:1 to 18:1, 9:1 to 13:1, 4:1 to 8:1 and then single digit breakdowns below 4:1. Of course many participants will change categories from the beginning to the end of the test. But the average severity of the diseases for each subgrouping will be very revealing at both the beginning and end of the study.
Additionally, with every individual’s measure for the Omega-3 deficiency on hand, in spite of only some general improvement in the group’s average health, a study can still report on the degree of cure for individuals who totally eliminate their Omega-3 deficiency. Eliminating the deficiency is the goal of the study in the first place. These fortunate individuals, even though a small minority of the participants, are the most important subjects for answering the question. If the majority of the subjects in the study do not make meaningful change in their omega-3 deficiencies, then they are not relevant other then to demonstrate that if their deficiencies continue so do their diseases.
Another interesting subgrouping would be to compare the changes in disease symptoms with the degree of change in the ratio. Some participants may drop from 30:1 to 8:1 while others may drop from 17:1 to 8:1. In both cases there may be improvement in health. But this comparison may or may not indicate that larger changes result in greater degrees of improvement in health.
In all of the tests that did not give Omega-3 fatty acids a ringing endorsement, the authors not only did not measure the O6 to O3 ratios, they did not even focus on the overall diet. Most of them just provided some form of Omega-3 supplementation. (If the supplementation was walnuts, it actually was an Omega-6 supplementation that exacerbated the Omega-3 deficiency.)
I saw one grass-fed beef study where the researcher fed his subjects four ounces of grass-fed beef three or four times a week (without any references to the rest of the participants’ diets) and then made up conclusions regarding the improvement or lack of improvement in the health of his subjects. None of the tests I’ve seen (even the better ones) have taken into account the overall diets of the individual subjects for the duration of the tests. Without knowing what the subjects eat overall there is no way to even guess why or if the subjects raised or lowered their Omega-3 deficiencies or how they accomplished their changes unless measurements are taken.
The point about diet is very important. If individual diets are monitored 100%, then studies can also draw some conclusions regarding which dietary approaches are best for addressing the Omega-3 deficiency. This is not possible in most current studies because only the supplementation is measured. This common error ignores the fact that high levels of Omega-6 block the body’s absorption of Omega-3s. Maybe that’s why most dietary suggestions erroneously include foods with Omega-3s (such as walnuts) as they focus only on the quantity of O3s by weight and ignore the quantities of O6s relative to O3s. For instance one ounce of walnuts has 2,542 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids and an overwhelming 10,666 mg of Omega-6 fatty acids that tend to block the absorption of Omega-3. Eating walnut's 4:1 ratio diet could result in a 12:1 or worse blood lipid profile.
Other common fallacies in the dietary approach is a singular focus of just adding in some foods that are extremely high in Omega-3s versus the Omega-6s such as seafood. The fish is a good addition, but it’s benefits can be wiped out by the rest of the conventional diet! Consequently most dietary suggestions ignore all the really great foods that have small quantities of EFAs in nearly perfect balance such as grass-fed livestock products (meats, dairy, poultry), spinach, broccoli, etc. and the critically important total elimination of all foods that are high in Omega-6s and low in Omega-3s.
Studies without measurements are worthless. If researchers are going to measure the impact of an appropriately balanced O6 to O3 diet versus the typical American diet, they have to get their subjects to change dramatically what they eat – plus they have to monitor their subjects on almost a daily basis to make sure they eat as instructed. Then if the researchers measure the O6 to O3 ratios of their subjects at the beginning and end of the testing period they will know not only the degree of change but how the changes were made. If individual daily diets are strictly monitored this adds to the validity of the conclusions regarding how to eliminate the Omega-3 deficiency and its impact on health.
There is good science and bad science. Without basic knowledge it is easy for bad science to gain a following. A following repeats the bad science over and over again reinforcing beliefs and in time the beliefs of all. This is how myths are born.
Humorously one can say there may be more myths surrounding food and nutrition than maybe any other topic except politics and religion – two fields that are difficult to measure. Therefore, to separate the good science from the bad science you must have special knowledge regarding the topic plus an understanding of the proper methods of measurement. Only then can you hope to interpret “scientific” reports as being either good or bad.
Because you know the definition of the Omega-3 deficiency you can tell if a book or report is making meaningful conclusions regarding Omega-3 supplementation or even whether or not a particular diet is actually a healthy diet. This is knowledge. Put it to good use. I have found that in the books and reports that do focus on eliminating the Omega-3 deficiency by lowering the O6 to O3 ratio to 1:1, they also report tremendous success in curing and suppressing chronic diseases. Therefore unless a book, report, or diet points to the importance of attaining the coveted O6 to O3 ratio of 1:1, it’s conclusions and suggestions are probably worthless.
Do Your Own Test
Of greater importance, with this knowledge we all know what it takes to optimize our own health. We can also actually see if we are making progress in our diet if we measure our O6 to O3 ratios. My goal is to get my Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio down to 1:1. Twelve years ago I had symptoms for no less than five different chronic diseases. I was worried about my health. But since then those symptoms slowly disappeared as my ratio came down. I do not know what my ratio was 12 years ago, but my diet was typical of most Americans. I’m sure my ratio was around 20:1. The last time I checked, some months ago, at that moment my ratio was 2.7:1. My health is far better than 12 years ago, but maybe it can even improve more than it has!
My own experience matches those of many others who have made the same food choices and have lowered their O6 to O3 ratios below 4:1. Consequently I know the positive stories about Omega-3 fatty acids are true. Good science backs the claims. My own experience backs the claims. The experiences of customers who have really focused on The Real Diet of Man also substantiates the Omega-3 claims. See: True Health Stories. In my opinion the only scams involving Omega-3 fatty acids are the myths created by bad science, ignorance, and loose tongues.
Last thought. How long will it be before the nearly worthless nutritional information required on food packages will also include the critical O6 to O3 ratio? When that happens, the value of the nutritional information will jump many fold. Then the O6 to O3 ratio and the quantity of sugar will be the only meaningful pieces of information on the Nutrition Label.
March 5, 2012
The day after I posted this essay I got the follwoing question:
Regarding Omega 3 studies: Wouldn't one also have to include measurements of healthy people with and without an omega 6-3 imbalance?
No, a study involving seemingly healthy people is not relevant. There are several reasons why. How bodies fail from nutritional abuse is heritable. For instance, in a family with a history of heart disease one can expect to see more heart disease in time if the offspring eat the same foods as the parents. But the disease may take many years to manifest itself. On the other hand, it would never occur or even show up as a hereditary fault if the family members ate properly and did not have Omega-3 deficiencies. Some humans have chronic diseases that developed while in the womb. For some it takes years. For 99% of all people it only takes a couple of years before one or more of the thousands of chronic diseases start to occur.
Additionally, since being overweight is a chronic disease, just how many actually healthy Americans are there? Of those that are at their proper weight, how many do it by starving themselves rather than by eating with gusto? Then if we examine only the people of proper weight that do not starve themselves, but look for hay fever, sinus issues, skin rashes, acne, toenail fungus, intestinal issues, asthma, cartilage failures, back pain, joint pain, crooked teeth, mental/emotional issues, and so on, just how many outstanding athletes in the prime of their life would be eliminated as being sick with a chronic disease? Also, out of the list of supposedly healthy people what happens if we ask them if they catch colds every year? Do you know that people who catch colds annually probably have immune deficiencies caused by the Omega-3 deficiency.
So the really big problem with finding healthy people is actually finding healthy people!!!
But the big reason for not bothering with what appears to be a healthy person today (who is a person that may develop cancer, or high blood pressure, MS, or Parkinson disease tomorrow in a flash) is that by testing what occurs to people who eliminate their Omega-3 deficiencies one can see way quicker what one should do to not only stop chronic diseases but to prevent them. Yes, if people can stop a chronic disease with diet, in all likelihood that same diet would prevent that same disease from ever developing in the first place. Isn't that the logical conclusion?
I'm still waiting to find a person with an Omega-3 deficiency who is in perfect health without signs of any chronic diseases.