The Fishy Origins of the Fish Oil Craze

In the 1970s, Danish researchers ventured north of the Arctic Circle and into medical lore. Studying a scattered Inuit population, they concluded that eating plenty of fish protected this group from heart disease. The researchers would eventually suggest that everyone else’s hearts and arteries might also benefit from the “Eskimo diet,” promoting a health food trend that continues to this day.
The only trouble is, the two Danes never proved that the Inuit had low rates of heart disease. They never tested it at all. But today the market for fish oil pills is booming, even as scientists conduct trial after trial to hunt for a link to heart health that has never quite solidified. Hans Olaf Bang and Jørn Dyerberg were clinical chemists at Aalborg Hospital North in Denmark. Curious about the nutrition of the Inuit, they “undertook an expedition” to the northwest coast of Greenland, which they described in a 1971 Lancet paper. They stopped at a town called Uummannaq. Counting the surrounding settlements, the population totaled 1,350 people, living off what they could hunt and fish from the unforgiving land.
The researchers drew blood from 130 natives. Compared to Danes, the Inuit had lower levels of lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides. Yet they had a higher proportion of the molecules known as omega-3 fatty acids, which are common in oily, cold-water fish. On a subsequent journey north, Bang and Dyerberg asked the Inuit for samples of their meals for several days. Chemical analysis of the food samples showed that, compared to typical Danes, the Inuit ate more protein, more cholesterol, and a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids. None of this was too surprising, as the researchers described it, the Inuit diet was “mostly of meat of whales, seals, sea birds, and fish,” with the main bread product being “some sort of ship biscuit.”