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Fish Oil Study Finds Little Benefit for Pregnant Women


4 Star

Fish Oil Study Finds Little Benefit for Pregnant Women

Our Review Summary

Some important questions the story didn’t address: how did researchers measure development/intelligence at 18 months?  What effect size were they hoping for? 


Why This Matters

In a few small but significant ways, this story used language that explained the findings more clearly than the competing New York Times story. But both stories whiffed on some important questions.  Read both full reviews to learn more.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no discussion of costs and we always think there should be – even if inconsequential.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Overall, we would have wished for more specificity on the data that was reported.  There were glimpses of specifity, as when the story reported: "The latest study does suggest that some subgroups of women might benefit from fish-oil supplements. For instance, those with a history of clinical depression—and thus are at higher risk of post-partum depression—who took 800 milligrams of fish oil daily lowered their risk of getting depressed after the birth by about 4% compared with those who didn’t take fish oil. However, the difference wasn’t statistically significant because of the small number of women in the study who had been previously depressed, said Dr. Makrides, who is also a professor of human nutrition at the University of Adelaide."

But we were disappointed that the story didn’t disclose how much preterm birth risk was reduced – an issue of vital concern to many readers. A preemie and an induction (covered as a harm but also without any numbers provided) aren’t necessarily equal.  

On balance, we just didn’t get enough data on benefits.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


There was no broad discussion of safety or side effects.  But one issue was raised that was not in the NYT story: 

"Women in the fish-oil group had lower rates of pre-term births, particularly births earlier than 34 weeks of gestation. But, there was a trade-off: More women who took the supplement needed their labor to be induced or had caesarean sections because the babies stayed in the womb longer, said Dr. Makrides."

Because it at least nodded in the direction of a specific potential harm issue, this story gets a satisfactory score on this criterion.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


Satisfactory job and in little ways superior to the NYT story we reviewed on the same study. For example, the language in this story was much more clear and helpful: 

"Several previous studies have shown that eating fish during pregnancy helped in the baby’s brain development and in reducing the risk of post-partum depression. That research, however, typically didn’t involve randomized, controlled studies. Instead, women were asked whether or not they chose to eat fish during pregnancy. It could be the case that eating fish is better than taking fish-oil supplements or that women who opt to eat fish are generally healthier and engage in other health-promoting behaviors, Dr. Oken said. The few trials conducted that separated participants, into a group taking fish-oil supplements and another that didn’t, weren’t well done, because the women often knew if they were getting the supplement, and in some cases there wasn’t a comparison group at all, she said."

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There was no disease-mongering in this story.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


Barely adequate – in that the story at least cited the views of an editorial writer in addition to those of one of the study authors.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


Again, barely adequate in that the story at least discussed a bit about both DHA supplements and fish consumption – but wrapped this into broader healthy alternatives such as "all pregnant women should strive for balance and eat a variety of foods, including fish."  

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story makes it clear that fish oil is widely available and has been widely used for the described uses.  However, it would have been helpful for readers/consumers if the story had discussed the challenge of assessing product purity, quality control, etc. – that it’s not just a simple matter of "just take fish oil." 

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


Past research on this topic is covered quite clearly.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It’s clear that the story did not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory


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