Study: Omega-3 Won't Prevent Cancer
But They Still Pack Huge Health Benefits, Say Researchers
Omega-3 Evidence Unclear
It's not clear why omega-3 fatty acids have this effect. One reason may be that they keep blood vessels from getting inflamed. Inflamed blood vessels tend to become clogged, leading to heart disease and stroke. But heart patients aren't the only ones who might benefit from omega-3 fatty acids.
"The anti-inflammatory aspect of omega-3 fatty acids may be important for people with psoriasis, arthritis, and asthma," Bonci says.
MacLean, too, praises the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
"There is some evidence it may lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of coronary artery reblockage after angioplasty, and increase exercise capacity among people with heart disease," she says. "And it may reduce risk of abnormal heart rhythm. Those are important health benefits. I would not throw away the omega-3 fatty acids. I just would not take them for the benefit of preventing cancer."
Eat fish if you want to get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Tuna is the main source of this nutrient in the U.S.
Don't like tuna? You can get omega-3 fatty acids from other fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, and herring), flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
You can also take omega-3 fatty acid supplements. But Bonci says it's better to get it from fish.
"The supplements certainly are going to be much more concentrated than a serving of fish," she says. "The bad news is that for so many products out there, there is concern about purity. And when taking fish-oil supplements, some people get gastrointestinal upset -- and reflux can be an issue. That doesn't usually happen when someone has a piece of salmon. And there are calories involved in taking these supplements. You might as well get the piece of fish along with the calories."
Scientists Never Say Never
Is the MacLean analysis scientific proof that omega-3 fatty acids can't protect against cancer? No.
Ten of the studies that MacLean's team analyzed did find protection. But each of these positive studies was balanced by one or more studies that found no protection -- or even linked omega-3 fatty acids to increased cancer risk.
But taken together, the studies show no scientific evidence that omega-3 fatty acids protect against cancer. There is no absolute proof of no benefit, but it convincingly shows that there's no evidence of a benefit.
"In science it is hard to ever say never," MacLean says. "Should some research be done that comes up with a plausible reason for why omega-3 fatty acids might have a beneficial effect for a particular type of cancer, then I would say, 'Yes, do more research.' But unless someone comes up with such compelling new evidence, I would not think more research is needed."