The Health & Food Supplements Information Service Reaffirms The Benefits Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These are supplements, not drugs, and expectations are unrealistic, says dietitian

In response to the findings of a new clinical trial[1] regarding the high-dose omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, in relation to heart health outcomes, Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian from the health & Food Supplements Information Service notes:  “This latest clinical trial does not provide information on the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in lower doses, as recommended for the general population. Studies going back 50 years have shown that people who eat at least two portions of fish a week, or who have optimal intakes of long-chain omega 3 fatty acids (e.g. DHA and EPA) are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, a recently updated meta-analysis of 40 studies with a combined total of 135,267 participants[2] found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids was associated with a 13% reduction in risk of heart attack, a 10% risk reduction in CHD events, a 35% risk reduction in fatal heart attack and a 9% risk reduction in CHD death. The effect was dose dependent for cardiovascular events and heart attack.

“This is why the European Food Safety Authority approved heart health claims for long chain omega-3 fatty acids) including the claim that omega-3s contribute to “the normal function of the heart”, “normal triglycerides”, and “normal blood pressure.[3]

“The key dietary source of omega 3 fatty acids is oily fish. Official UK advice is that everyone should eat at least one portion of oily fish a week[4]  to ensure they get enough omega-3s in the diet. Yet, the majority of people don’t do this which is why an omega-3 supplement can help bridge the gap.

“Intakes of omega-3s are very low in the UK because most people don’t eat oily fish – something that has not changed over the past few decades according to a 2019 report for HSIS[5].

“This new clinical trial was in patients taking statins at high risk of future cardiovascular events. The trial used a high dose of omega-3 fatty acids of 4 g daily with a combination of EPA and DHA in fixed proportions. Given the poor health of the participants and their existing cocktail of medicines, it’s unrealistic to expect a single nutrient to prevent further illness. These are supplements, not drugs, and we should think of them simply as a convenient way to bridge dietary gaps.”

Dr Ruxton adds: “Omega 3 intakes are likely to remain low in the UK and may fall even further due to the move towards sustainable diets, vegan and vegetarian diets and consumer concerns about fish stocks. Taking a marine or algae oil supplement is an effective way to get omega-3s into the diet. Yet again evidence shows few people do this. According to a Mintel survey, only a fifth of people took a regular cod liver oil/fish oil supplement during the past year[6] whilst a 2019 HSIS survey found omega 3s were taken by only one in ten people[7]

“As oily fish intakes are so low in the UK, an omega-3 supplement is a practical way to increase intakes to recommended levels and ensure we benefit from these important fatty acids.”

[1] Nicholls SJ et al (2020) JAMA. Doi:10/1001/jama.2020.22258
Bernasconi A et al (2020).[1] Nicholls SJ et al (2020) JAMA. Doi:10/1001/jama.2020.22258

[3][3] EU register of authorised health claims

[4] SACN. Advice on fish consumption. 2004.

[5] HSIS State of the Nation: Dietary Trends in the UK – 20 years on. Where are we and where are we going? Report in file


[7] Anon. GINUK20019 – HSIS. Data on file. 2019