San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Omega-3 – Hero or villain?

Here we go again. The hero nutrient that could do no wrong and seemed to cure almost anything has become a villain. After being touted as a panacea for good health, omega-3 supplements have now been accused of raising a man’s chance of prostate cancer by between 43 and 71 percent. But we will keep calm, refrain from immediately tossing out the supplements and take a closer look at this sensational headline.

It cites a 44 or 71 greater chance of developing prostate cancer, not absolute percentages. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, 152 men in every 100,000 develop prostate cancer. This is 0.15 percent or 1 man in every 658, so a 71 percent increase translates to a 0.26 percent possibility or 1 in every 385 men. Still quite scary, but less so than a straight 71 percent. However, not all men are made equal, with some being more prone to prostate cancer than others. Risk increases significantly if a direct family member has suffered and both lack of exercise and obesity are contributors. Race can also be an indicator, with black Americans 58 percent more likely and Latinos 13 percent less likely to contract prostate cancer than white Americans.

Another consideration is that this study only shows a link between high blood levels of omega-3 and increased risk, suggesting a currently unidentified role in prostate tumor formation. It does not show that taking omega-3 supplements directly causes an increased risk of prostate cancer. More research needs to be done to support or refute such cause and effect.

And let’s not forget the advantages of omega-3s. They are required in the body to maintain healthy skin, joints, memory and vision, as well as nervous system and brain function. Clinical studies show that they help relieve inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, pain and stiffness and have a protective effect for people recovering from a heart attack.

Medical experts who were consulted after this headline surfaced are of the opinion that omega-3s still do far more good than harm. If you have had a good experience with fish oils and are not high risk for prostate cancer, then you may as well continue with them within recommended dosages. Or simply eat 2-3 portions of oily fish a week as only the supplements are under fire, not real food sources.

While it is unwise to go overboard on a food or supplement because of some sensational headline touting its wonders, similarly there is no need to abruptly stop because of equally sensationally negative press. As is my mantra, moderation is the key. If you happen to be high risk for prostate cancer for other reasons, then you should consult a medical doctor for advice and ensure you have regular screenings. In addition, a nutritional therapist can advise on an optimal diet for your circumstances.

Meanwhile, another study from the University of Texas is reporting that regular consumption of walnuts (a good plant source of omega-3 fatty acids) can lower the risk of prostate cancer … more about that one another time.

Julie Godfrey BSc (Hons) is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). See or email

News sources:

Taking omega-3 fish oil supplements may increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer by 70%: and also

Study confirms link between high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer:

Prostate Cancers Are Fewer, Smaller On Walnut-Enriched Diet:


Risks and benefits of omega-3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review: British Medical Journal 2006,

There is not enough evidence …..Cochrane Reviews:

National Institute of Cancer:

DHA for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7-9 Years:

Fatty Acids and Mood:the devil is in the detail: (click on View pdf for the full text)

Surprising findings on omega-3 …

Experts Slam omega-3 link to prostate cancer as overblown ‘scaremongering’

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