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Fishing for the Truth

Machla Abramovitz

Omega-3 fatty acids are being touted as the new wonder supplement, capable of preventing disease, curing health ailments, and boosting intelligence and memory. But it turns out these claims are based on research that’s, well, a little fishy. We did a little investigating to separate the facts from the fiction

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A few years ago, Sarah was crossing the street when she was hit by a car. In addition to breaking some bones, the 37-year-old also suffered a mild head injury. Shortly afterwards, she began experiencing memory lapses: she had trouble remembering names and understanding what was said to her.

Her family doctor told her there was little to be done — such injuries take time to heal — but that she might try omega-3 fish oil since it’s being lauded as a memory restorer. Excited, Sarah purchased a large bottle and began taking it religiously for three months. “I was waiting for a miracle to happen, but soon realized that the only cure in my case would be time and hard work, and not any fish oil,” she says.

Sarah’s story is not unique. As more and more studies hit the press touting the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, people of all ages are gulping down costly fish oils and capsules to either cure existing conditions or ward off potential health ailments. Some of these include heart attacks, strokes, depression, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory diseases, and even certain cancers. Children, especially, are being plied with omega-3 capsules in attempts to increase their concentration and brain power — the claim being that omega-3 increases intelligence.

Is omega-3 really the new wonder supplement? I quickly discovered that fishing for the truth was going to be a herculean task. “Confused?” asks Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. “That’s understandable. There’s so much information coming out that it’s difficult to wade through it, and you can cherry-pick the data to show almost anything you want to show.”


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