Reality Check: Fish Oil is No Brain Food

Fish oil supplements, high in omega-3 fatty acids, do not prevent brain decline, contrary to popular belief

Updated
Health News
3 min read
Fish oils are the most popular dietary supplements and are available over-the-counter as brain enhancing pills (Photo: iStock)

One thing you should know about me, I come from a strict vegetarian family who has over-dosed on fish oil supplements since childhood. I can cite at least 40 to 1,000 heart and brain benefits of fish oil supplements. No wonder, I’ve forced it on everyone I love. If the capsule is too big to swallow, the baby gets the gummy fish oil; I found the husband an odourless capsule because the breath becomes fishy. I have also made the relatively frivolous but brilliant discovery that, when taken before drinking, fish oils are a hangover prevention hook.

The annual fish oil market is worth $1.2 billion but now a new study published in American medical journal, JAMA, finds that it could’ve all been a hogwash!

Okay, I just had my “Maggi moment” (a discovery which ruins your childhood memories), so all you guys who are popping in these supplements to boost brain health, stop wasting your time, money and read on:

Fish Oil Supplements Don’t Improve Memory

A much better bet for all-around brain and heart health, is eating foods naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, flaxseed and walnuts (Photo: iStock)
A much better bet for all-around brain and heart health, is eating foods naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, flaxseed and walnuts (Photo: iStock)

For five years, scientists at the National Institutes of Health followed nearly 4000 elderly people at risk of developing brain degeneration. Half of this group was on placebo, the other half on omega-3 pills and at the end of the study. At the beginning of the study, they were tested on their immediate recall, attention and memory, and then tested two, four and five years later.

The cognition scores of all participants decreased by roughly the same amount over the five year period - around 19 per cent, irrespective of whether or not they had been taking omega-3 supplements.

So fish oil supplements on their own are not enough to keep the brain young. But this study was done on high risk elderly people and health experts are not sure if the same results would apply if younger, healthier people who took these supplements for years.

The takeaway is that supplements are not the fast cure. You are what you eat and you’ve got to eat well.

Bottomline: You Are What You Eat

A well-balanced, healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, may be far more potent when it comes to maintaining mental abilities than any supplement could accomplish (Photo: iStock)
A well-balanced, healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, may be far more potent when it comes to maintaining mental abilities than any supplement could accomplish (Photo: iStock)

At one point, omega-3s were looked to as a very hopeful supplement for people at high risk for heart disease. But recently, no research has established the risk reduction we want to see.

46.8 million people worldwide currently suffer from dementia, a number that is forecast to reach 131.5 million in 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. Omega-3 or fish oil supplements were considered as a preventive way to curb memory decline.

So does this mean omega-3s aren’t the health-boon they were thought to be? Not necessarily. Supplementation is not the same as eating high amounts of omega-3s in a healthy dietary pattern. So loading up on walnuts, fish, beans, will have more potent effects on your health than supplements.

Now that there is no quick fix to healthy aging in a bottle of pills, I think I’ll save my supplement money to buy a kilo of walnuts. That’s definitely going to be a healthy move.

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