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Want the benefits of omega-3s? Skip the pills and go for the real thing

Everyone has heard about the health benefits associated with omega-3 acids, found in fatty fish (such as salmon and halibut) and in handy capsule form.

But it turns out that omega-3 supplements are not only expensive and tough to swallow, they're pretty much useless at preventing strokes, The New York Times reports.

A systematic review published in the British Medical Journal suggests essential fatty acids are best consumed in fish form, such as sushi, sashimi and delicately poached salmon. (Tastier, too.)

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The British, American and Dutch research team looked at 26 cohort studies and 12 randomized controlled trials, which together involved almost 800,000 individuals and 34,817 cerebrovascular incidents (strokes).

The study authors concluded that eating two to four servings of fish a week reduced stroke risk by 6 per cent compared with eating one serving or less. Five servings a week reduced the risk by 12 per cent. But omega-3 supplements used in randomized trials showed little effect in preventing strokes.

High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke. Others include high cholesterol, diabetes, family history of stroke and advanced age.

Previous research at Harvard University's medical school suggests omega-3s may reduce heart rate, thereby potentially reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death. In a study from the University of Sydney, researchers found that omega-3 supplements may protect against vascular disease such as angina. But they found no evidence that fatty acids protect against coronary events. "Any benefits are almost certainly not as great as previously believed," they wrote.

The authors of the study looking at stroke prevention concluded that fish are more than just a delivery system for omega-3s. "The beneficial effect of fish intake on [stroke] risk is likely to be mediated through the interplay of a wide range of nutrients abundant in fish," they concluded.

In other words, there's nothing like the real thing.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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