By now you’ve likely seen one of the 837 kazillion headlines reverberating around the internet, proclaiming that fish oil causes prostate cancer. If not, Google it.
Outcry is the result of a study released last week in JNCI, which looked at the association between blood concentration of omega-3’s and prostate cancer risk among men participating in the SELECT trial (Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial).
That study ultimately linked fish oil intake with a 43% increased risk for prostate cancer overall, and a 71% increased risk for high-grade prostate cancer. Cue never-ending headlines smiting one of nutrition’s darlings.1
What Experts Are Saying
Pump the brakes, breathe, and collect yourself before converting your jug of fish oil into an incendiary Molotov cocktail. While the media has been typically sensationalist about the findings, experts are taking a more defensive, positive stance, stating that the study has various flaws and its association is “weak at best.”
Here’s a roundup of reactions & recos from various MDs & PhDs:
Howard LeWine, MD, Harvard — “despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.”2
Chris Mohr, PhD & RD, Pittsburgh — he cites that single blood tests aren’t an accurate way to assess long-term fish oil intake, and concludes: “from the findings of this study, it is 100% impossible and irresponsible to conclude that fish or fish oil cause an increase in risk for prostate cancer.”3.
Michael Savage, PhD, Cal Berkeley — to put it lightly, he emphatically labels it as “junk science” and says the study “stinks like rotten fish.” See the video above for his full PoV.4
Anthony Victor A’mico, MD & PhD, Harvard — he calls out the omission of risk factors like race, age, quality of fish oil, BMI, and PSA levels (it stands for Prostate-Specific Antigen; it’s a metric used to test for prostate cancer) as MAJOR limitations, stating: “what you’re left with at the end of the day is an association that, at best, is very weak and further weakened by the fact that they didn’t account for the known predictors of prostate cancer when they were making the calculation.”5
On the subject of a fish oil-prostate cancer linkage, there’s mixed evidence — a 2011 study found no association6; while a second 2010 study not only found no connection, but also observed a significant drop in prostate cancer-related deaths.7
Oye vey — Harvard man Howard LeWine said it best.
“Experts will surely remain divided on their opinions about fish oil supplements for the general population. And don’t expect any clarity about what to do any time soon. I expect other studies with flip-flopping results in the future.” — Harvard M.D. Howard LeWine
In addition to fish’s lean protein, selenium (an antioxidant), and trace mineral content, there’s ample evidence supporting omega-3’s role in the reduction of heart disease, triglycerides, atherosclerosis, blood pressure, and inflammation; improved cognitive function; and potentially even increased muscle protein synthesis.8
That’s WAY too much upside to give up, plus I trust the experts. Here’s how to hedge your risk:
1. Eat wild fish (NOT farmed) over supplements whenever possible; if you can get by without supplemental fish oil, do it.
2. Diversify your omega-3 sources. Flax, chia, walnuts, beans, green leafy vegetables, blackberries, and raspberries all pack an abundance of non-fish omega-3’s.9
3. If you don’t get enough omega-3’s in your diet naturally, it’s extremely important that you ONLY take high-quality, purified fish oil to maximize the benefits and limit any potential detriments — use our review of the top 26 fish oil products here.