Omega-3s & the Eskimo Fish Tale

Omega-3s & the Eskimo Fish Tale
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The concept that heart disease was rare among the Eskimos appears to be a myth.

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The revelation that fish oil appears useless in preventing heart disease, as I reviewed before, in either heart patients or for those trying to prevent heart disease in the first place, leads one to wonder how this whole fish tale began.

Well, the common mythology is that in response to anecdotal reports of a low prevalence of coronary heart disease among the Eskimos, Danish researchers Bang and Dyerberg went there and confirmed a very low incidence of heart attack. The absence of coronary artery disease would be strange in a meat-based diet, hardly any fruits and vegetables—violating all principles of heart-healthy nutrition. This paradox was attributed to all the seal and whale blubber, which is extremely rich in omega-3 fish fat, and the rest is history. The problem is, it isn’t true. 

The fact is they never examined the cardiovascular status of the Eskimos; they just accepted at face value this notion that coronary atherosclerosis is almost unknown among the Eskimo, a concept that has been disproven over and over starting in the 30s. In fact, going back over a thousand years, we have frozen Eskimo mummies with atherosclerosis. Another from 500 years ago, a woman in her early 40s – atherosclerosis in her aorta and coronary arteries. And these aren’t just isolated cases. The totality of evidence from actual clinical investigations, autopsies, and imaging techniques is that they have the same plague of coronary artery disease that non Eskimo populations have, and actually have twice the fatal stroke rate and don’t live particularly long.

Considering the dismal health status of Eskimos, it is remarkable that instead of labeling their diet as dangerous to health, they just accepted and echoed the myth and tried to come up with a reason to explain the false premise. 

Such dismal health that the Westernization of their diets actually lowered their rates of ischemic heart disease. You know your diet’s bad when the arrival of Twinkies improves your health.

So, why do so many researchers to this day unquestioningly parrot the myth? Publications still referring to Bang and Dyerberg’s nutritional studies as proof that Eskimos have low prevalence of heart disease represent either misinterpretation of the original findings or an example of what’s called confirmation bias, which is when people cherry pick or slant information to confirm their preconceived notions. To quote the great scientist Francis Bacon: “We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true.” And so, literally thousands of articles on the alleged benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, we’ve got a billion dollar industry selling fish oil capsules, millions of Americans taking the stuff, all based on a hypothesis that was questionable from the beginning.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to born1945 via Flickr.

The revelation that fish oil appears useless in preventing heart disease, as I reviewed before, in either heart patients or for those trying to prevent heart disease in the first place, leads one to wonder how this whole fish tale began.

Well, the common mythology is that in response to anecdotal reports of a low prevalence of coronary heart disease among the Eskimos, Danish researchers Bang and Dyerberg went there and confirmed a very low incidence of heart attack. The absence of coronary artery disease would be strange in a meat-based diet, hardly any fruits and vegetables—violating all principles of heart-healthy nutrition. This paradox was attributed to all the seal and whale blubber, which is extremely rich in omega-3 fish fat, and the rest is history. The problem is, it isn’t true. 

The fact is they never examined the cardiovascular status of the Eskimos; they just accepted at face value this notion that coronary atherosclerosis is almost unknown among the Eskimo, a concept that has been disproven over and over starting in the 30s. In fact, going back over a thousand years, we have frozen Eskimo mummies with atherosclerosis. Another from 500 years ago, a woman in her early 40s – atherosclerosis in her aorta and coronary arteries. And these aren’t just isolated cases. The totality of evidence from actual clinical investigations, autopsies, and imaging techniques is that they have the same plague of coronary artery disease that non Eskimo populations have, and actually have twice the fatal stroke rate and don’t live particularly long.

Considering the dismal health status of Eskimos, it is remarkable that instead of labeling their diet as dangerous to health, they just accepted and echoed the myth and tried to come up with a reason to explain the false premise. 

Such dismal health that the Westernization of their diets actually lowered their rates of ischemic heart disease. You know your diet’s bad when the arrival of Twinkies improves your health.

So, why do so many researchers to this day unquestioningly parrot the myth? Publications still referring to Bang and Dyerberg’s nutritional studies as proof that Eskimos have low prevalence of heart disease represent either misinterpretation of the original findings or an example of what’s called confirmation bias, which is when people cherry pick or slant information to confirm their preconceived notions. To quote the great scientist Francis Bacon: “We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true.” And so, literally thousands of articles on the alleged benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, we’ve got a billion dollar industry selling fish oil capsules, millions of Americans taking the stuff, all based on a hypothesis that was questionable from the beginning.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to born1945 via Flickr.

Doctor's Note

What’s this about no benefit for fish oil consumption and heart disease? See my video Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil? What about fish oil for mood disorders? See Fish Consumption and Suicide. Consumption of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) may be useful for forming and maintaining brain health, though (video series forthcoming), there’s the struggle between Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development when coming from fish or fish oil, thanks to how polluted our oceans have become (even in “distilled” fish oil, see Fish Oil in Troubled Waters). The marine pollutants may explain the relationship between Fish and Diabetes and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease): Fishing for Answers. Thankfully, there are now pollutant-free (yeast- and microalgae-derived) sources.

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