Don’t Discount Fish
Thu, 27 Oct. 2011 - 3:45 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association
An article published in the May 1 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology has challenged a long-held dietary belief about the benefits of fish, causing some consternation of late. The researchers report that the data in support of fish or omega-3 fatty acid consumption as a means to reduce coronary heart disease “are inconclusive and may be confounded by other dietary and lifestyle factors.”
Specifically, the study, which looked at 1,441 subjects over nine years as compiled in the Diabetic Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) database, found correlations between consumption of omega-3s and saturated fats to other dietary variables like total caloric, cholesterol, and sodium intake, as well as age, gender, exercise level, and tobacco use. Using Pearson correlation coefficients, the researchers found that people with higher levels of omega-3 consumption also consumed fewer calories, fewer calories from total fat, and a smaller percentage of those fat calories from saturated fats. They also consumed more dietary fiber. Therefore, associations observed in studies suggesting a benefit of fish or omega-3 fatty acids may be due to a convergence of greater fish intake with an overall healthier dietary pattern rather than with a specific effect of omega-3 intake.
Certain groups, most notably the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), have seized upon the data to make blanket assertions that fish consumption has been debunked as a means to better heart health. These efforts can be reasonably viewed as premature at best. In a recent press release entitled, “Fish Does Not Protect the Heart, Researchers Say,” the PCRM seems to have overstated its case by reporting that eating fish is of no health benefit.
It is far from conclusive that omega-3s are a red herring, as it were, in a greater set of controlling factors promoting cardiovascular health. The study merely suggests that confounding variables reveal a more nuanced tale. However, the fact that fish consumption is associated with other positive eating habits means there might well be an indirect benefit to regular fish consumption, even in the unlikely event that the specific benefits of omega-3s one day do not hold up. For example, in the words of the PCRM’s own press release, “[p]articipants eating less fish but greater quantities of other meats consume more overall saturated fat and less fiber. This finding suggests that improved heart health, often attributed to fish consumption, actually results from a generally healthier dietary pattern, including higher intakes of fiber and lower intakes of saturated fat, rather than the fish itself.” But the fish itself represents a source of food far lower in saturated fat than these “other meats” a person would consume instead. It is completely valid to conclude that fish is the healthier choice.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the study’s co-author, Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, an assistant professor of health and wellness at UNC, is also listed as a “senior nutrition scientist” with the PCRM. A perusal of the PCRM’s web site reveals that the majority of its members, the organization’s name not withstanding, are not physicians.
The PCRM describes itself as “a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, especially good nutrition. PCRM also conducts clinical research studies, opposes unethical human experimentation, and promotes alternatives to animal research.” The New York Times described them more succinctly as “an advocacy and research group that promotes a diet free of animal products” in a May 11, 2007 article about their successful lobbying of the FTC to disallow National Dairy Council ads which claimed that milk can be a weight loss tool.
The Times went on to report that PCRM president Dr. Neal Barnard said the group would continue to press the dairy industry on other claims, which include the assertion that calcium helps prevent bone fractures in older women.
National Dairy Council executive vice president Greg Miller, who has a doctorate in nutrition, said most medical professionals agreed that dairy contributed to overall bone health. “I think there’s a minority of people out there that just have very loud voices,” he said. “This is a vegan group that doesn’t want anyone to eat dairy.”
While the dairy council’s ads about weight loss could certainly be categorized as misleading, Lanou’s bald pronouncement that “consumers have good reason to steer clear of fish,” is far from warranted and may be irresponsible given the many ways to interpret the results of this single study.
(Am J. Cardiol., 2007, Vol. 99, No. 9, pp. 1230-1233; www.pcrm.org; The New York Times, “Dairy Council to End Ad Campaign That Linked Drinking Milk With Weight Loss,” by Kim Severson, May 11, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/11/us/11milk.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)
(RUNNING & FITNEWS® April / May 2007 • Volume 25, Number 3)