The Mother and Child Foundation’s Rachel Gow was one of the experts working behind the scenes in the BBC’s recent Trust Me I’m a Doctor show, looking at omega-3 and health.
Rachel is one of the country’s foremost authorities on ADHD, with a particular expertise in omega-3 fatty acids and the nutritional aspects of mental health.
The show posed the questions: “which is the best way to make sure you’re getting the omega-3 you need to keep you in tip-top health – oily fish or omega-3 supplements? And how much difference can taking either of these actually make to your health?”
“It was great to see the positive results of the show’s fish oil study with Liverpool John Moores University”, says Rachel. “Essentially they measured the omega-3 index of all participants and then randomised them to eating fish, taking fish oil supplements or a placebo. The omega-3 index is the sum of the omega-3’s EPA and DHA and can be measured via a finger prick test. It is a well-validated measure of the risk of cardiovascular disease, and sudden cardiac death. Low levels (i.e., less than 4%) are also linked to psychiatric illness.
“Those in both the oily fish and supplement groups raised their omega-3 index significantly out of the “at risk” category over the 8 week period placing them at lower risk of future health complications.”
High Risk to Low Risk
“In our limited timeframe the omega-3 fat levels in the blood cells of all the volunteers in those groups increased for the better”, says the BBC’s Trust Me I’m a Doctor webpage. “For some of them it moved them from the High Risk to the Low Risk category, which is very encouraging.
“All our volunteers had a fairly low omega-3 Index when the trial started – each group was around 4-5%, but some individuals were as low as 3%. So at the start of our trial, many volunteers were at a moderate to high risk of serious illness.
“After the trial, it’s a different story. The oily fish group and the omega-3 supplement group all leap to 7 – 8%, meaning they’re heading towards the low risk category.”
Fish or supplements?
The implications for better health prospects are clear.
“Were the people in the study to sustain this diet over a longer period of time, they might all move into the low risk category for serious illnesses like heart disease, stroke and diabetes”, says the BBC’s webpage for the show and study. “Even though we were giving people higher doses than you might normally take, the reality is, if you took lower doses over a longer timeframe – or incorporated omega 3 into your lifelong diet – then you’d likely see similar improvements.
“What’s more if you choose to get your omega 3 from oily fish, there are other benefits – fish is a great source of lean protein, and you’re also getting a range of vitamins and minerals.”
As to the question of “which is best, fish or supplements?”, the website notes: “Ultimately, the choice is yours, but one thing is clear – we could all do with more omega-3 in our diets if we want to cut our risk of serious illness.”