Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Cause Prostate Cancer?

Written by Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Fish, Fish Oils And Prostate Cancer

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pure Fish OilMy phone has been ringing off the hook. My email in-box is full. It seems that everyone wants to know if the headlines about omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer are true.

In case you have just gotten back from a vacation on some deserted island with no newspapers and no internet, let me bring you up to date. The headlines are saying things like “Fish Oils May Increase Your Risk of Prostate Cancer” and “Latest Study Links Fish Oils to Prostate Cancer”.

Once again, it seems like just when you’ve figured out which foods that are good for you, someone tells you they could actually kill you. It’s no wonder so many of you have been asking me to cut through the hype and put this latest study in perspective.

What the study actually says:

As usual, let me start with the study itself (Brasky et al., Journal of the National Cancer Institute, doi: 10.1093/jnci/djt174). On the surface, it appears to be a reasonably well designed study, and the conclusions were dramatic. They reported that subjects with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood were 43% more likely to develop prostate cancer, 44% more likely to develop low grade prostate cancer, and 71% more likely to develop high grade prostate cancer compared to those with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

The flaws in the study:

Case closed you might be tempted to say. However, once you dig a little deeper, the study does have two important weaknesses.

1)     It used data from another study that was designed for a totally different purpose. They went back and analyzed blood samples from a previous study that was actually designed to measure the association between vitamin E and selenium intake and prostate cancer. That’s a scientific no-no.  Let me explain why.

If they had designed a study to investigate the association between omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer, they probably would have selected participants with a wide range of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood at the beginning of the study. The subjects in this study actually had a very narrow range of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream.

They also would probably have done a diet analysis and found out whether the subject’s omega-3 fatty acids were coming from fish or fish oil supplements. They might have even asked whether the omega-3 fatty acids were from farm-raised fish or inexpensive fish oil supplements known to be contaminated with PCBs. This study collected none of these data.

2)     This is a single study, and individual studies often provide misleading results. For example, if you examine their data closely, it looks like heavy drinkers and smokers might have a decreased risk of prostate cancer. I think that’s unlikely, but weird associations like that often pop up in individual studies.

What do you find when you look at other studies?

Expert scientists aren’t swayed by individual studies. We prefer to look at the “big picture” that emerges when you combine the results of many studies. For example, a meta-analysis of 24 studies with 461,402 subjects (Symanski et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1223-1233, 2010) found no association between fish consumption and prostate cancer risk.

Individual studies ranged from a 61% decrease in risk to a 77% increase in risk, but the overall effect was zero! Even more importantly, fish consumption decreased prostate cancer deaths by 63%.

The Bottom Line:

1)     Don’t panic. Don’t change what you are doing based on the latest sensational headlines. This study has been way overblown. We have come to expect sensational headlines and hype from journalists and bloggers because that’s how they get people to read what they write.

However, I find the comment from the senior author that “We’ve shown once again that use of nutritional supplements may be harmful” to be very irresponsible, especially since they have no data showing that anyone in their study actually used fish oil supplements.

2)     The benefits of assuring optimal omega-3 fatty acid intake clearly overshadow the risks. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower triglycerides and blood pressure, reduce inflammation and depression, and may even help prevent dementia.

3)     This study does raise a caution flag, but I would not recommend reducing your omega-3 fatty acid intake on the basis of these data alone – especially since most published studies show no increased risk of prostate cancer. There are much better designed studies underway that should clearly show an increase in prostate cancer risk if it is a real effect. I will monitor those studies closely and keep you abreast of any new developments.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Linda Walls

    |

    I have been hearing that there is a study saying that fish oil causes inflamation, what do you know?
    Thanks
    Linda

    Reply

    • Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Linda,
      I will comment more fully on that in a future issue, but this comes under what I call “The Headline of the Day”. In fact, there are dozens of studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect, so the preponderance of evidence is in favor of the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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