Each day we are bombarded with news about our health – it’s in our inboxes and social media feeds and glares at us from the television. Headlines about health advice supposedly based on the latest research—the cutting edge, shocking, must-know, rock-your-world health advice du jour.
With all this new and varying information, how do we know what’s accurate? What produces real, lasting health benefits?
Recently, I visited the TV show, The Doctors, to discuss the benefits of omega 3 fatty acid supplements. Humans have a basic nutritional need for omega-3 fatty acids (O3), but the body can’t create them on its own. O3 are found in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel; but, many people have difficulty achieving optimal O3 levels with diet alone.
On the show, I recommended O3 supplementation because, based on research, they are a source of healthy fats that are cardioprotective. But what did I see in my inbox as soon as filming wrapped? Articles about how O3s are not protective for cardiovascular health. I felt frustrated and panicked. I’m passionate about the benefits of O3 on heart health, and I had spoken accordingly on the show. How could this be possible?
Understanding the studies
For years, thousands of published scientific studies have shown the benefits of O3s – so much so, that the American Heart Association endorsed omega 3s for heart health. This prompted me to join the Global Nutrition and Health Alliance (GNHA), an international group of doctors, dietitians, researchers and allied health professionals who came together to review the state of health in their respective countries and educate consumers and healthcare professionals about optimal nutrition, including the use of vitamin, minerals and supplements.
The GNHA has focused on the role of diet as part of a healthy lifestyle, specifically with an understanding that to reap the benefits, people must achieve a certain level of O3 in the blood. Once we began to investigate more deeply, we discovered that even in people who believed they were eating healthfully, 98% had low levels of omega 3s in their diets.[i]
I compared our research, alongside the body of literature that exists in this field, to the news articles I was reading which covered the new Cochrane review of 79 studies. These studies evaluated more than 112,000 people and concluded there was no evidence that an increase in the consumption of ALA and long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, protects against cardiovascular health.
However, the type of studies included – short-term supplemental trials – might not be able to replicate the beneficial effects of long-term fish oil or O3 intake.
These are treatment trials, not prevention trials. Treatment and prevention are not the same things.
Nutrients should not be treated like drugs. I could see that objective testing was not part of the review. The conclusions that Omega-3s do not affect heart health are simply far too broad for these study designs. Instead, I was left with many unanswered questions. Were the subjects taking O3 supplements? Was the O3 not being delivered? Or were they only eating in a way they thought was healthy but that did not include enough omega 3s? Why did this analysis include studies we’ve seen before when there have been other meta-analyses that claim benefits for EPA and DHA that are not widely reported?
Casting doubt on legitimate health advice
This is just one example of how legitimate health advice can be made to seem irrelevant in a moment. How can we feel confident in our choices when research – and the way it is reported in the media – swings the pendulum so far in either direction without explaining the nuances in a way that is actionable and that people can understand? This is difficult for me as a person interested in taking care of herself, and as a physician trying to make recommendations for my patients. It matters to me that the information I give to people is clear and accurate. But the truth is that the truth – as we understand it – evolves as we learn more. And we are always learning more.
Here’s the bottom line: the headlines, the feeds, the blogs, the articles, even the TV doctors aren’t always able to fully explain the big picture or interpret complex research information in a way that is useful for every, average health-conscious person. It is especially challenging to understand and explain information that seems contradictory, even at opposite ends of the spectrum.
What can we do?
What we can do as physicians and consumers, is work together to read the fine print, educate ourselves on discerning good information from bad (hint: look at the source), and keep the lines of communication open.
No matter what the latest headline says, I encourage all of us to follow these tried and true tips that can keep us feeling healthy, strong, and happy:
- Eat a well-rounded, diverse, Mediterranean-leaning diet filled with vegetables, healthy fat (like olive oil and nuts), a little fruit, and some natural whole grains.
- Exercise regularly, about 150 minutes per week.
- Understand your own health journey – talk to your doctor holistically to understand things like omega 3 levels the same way you’d want to understand something like your cholesterol levels.
- Manage your stress—rather than ignoring it—in whatever way works for you (meditation, nature walks, deep breathing, a nightly bath).
- Laugh more.
- Keep good friends and family around you and interact with them often.
- Find a purpose or a meaning for your life and pursue it.
As a lifelong learner and health advocate, I’ll continue to follow the research and resulting headlines with a discerning eye. I look forward to understanding more about the role of Omega-3s and other nutrients in cardiovascular and preventative health.
[i] Thuppal, S.V.; von Schacky, C.; Harris, W.S.; Sherif, K.D.; Denby, N.; Steinbaum, S.R.; Haycock, B.; Bailey, R.L. Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index. Nutrients 2017, 9, 930.
Suzanne Steinbaum, MD
Suzanne Steinbaum MD, Director, Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health and Wellness, Mt. Sinai Hospital; New York, NY, USA
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum has devoted her career to the treatment of heart disease through early detection, education, and prevention. She is an attending cardiologist and the Director of Women’s Heart Health of Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and has been awarded a New York Times Super Doctor, a Castle and Connolly Top Doctor for Cardiovascular Disease and New York Magazine’s prestigious Best Doctors in the New York edition. A Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, she also serves as a national spokesperson for the Go Red for Women campaign and is on the New York City Board of the American Heart Association.