Time magazine’s story states that a University of Colorado study has provided evidence that increasing the amount of healthy fat in one’s diet “can boost your chances of getting pregnant.” No, no, no. We just can’t know this yet: It’s mouse research. Involving all of 10 mice.
The story acknowledges this later, stating that “(m)ore studies need to replicate and confirm the role that omega 3 fatty acids might play in fertility.” But not before making big claims, such as “researchers say that a common fat found in fish like salmon, and plants like flaxseed, may play a role in boosting fertility.”
Given the scant evidence this study provides to women trying to get pregnant, we question its news value in a national news magazine web site. And this isn’t our first time to critique TIME on writing about preliminary rodent research, nor many other outlets, including the PR machines who are often behind the curtain, pitching these stories to journalists.
We generally recommend putting these studies away and waiting until more conclusive human research comes along. But, if there’s no way around it, we recommend following this model for how to do it more accurately.
CDC data show that more than one of every 10 women age 15-44 in the United States (12.3%, or 7.5 million) have impaired fertility, and more than 6.9 million women have used infertility services in an attempt to become pregnant. Infertility can be heart-breaking, and many women who have difficulty getting pregnant are eager for any news that promises to help them conceive. However, the emotional intensity of the struggle to get pregnant means journalists must be especially careful not to offer false or premature hope for an easy fix.
The article includes no discussion of the cost of adding either omega 3 supplements or foods high in omega 3 fats to an individual’s diet. Omega 3 supplements may not be especially expensive, but the story doesn’t address this issue either.
Given that the research under consideration here involved 10 mice — and genetically bred mice at that — there’s no way to determine whether increasing omega 3s in a woman’s diet would have any benefit at all, let alone to quantify the likely benefits.
The story does explain that the mice bred to have higher ratios of omega 3 fatty acids seemed to produce more “precursors to egg cells” and also produced higher quality eggs, meaning they would be more likely to have eggs that would be fertilized and develop into baby mice.
The bottom line, however, is that a woman reading this story and hoping to improve her fertility would find no information that would help her assess how much of an increase in omega 3s she might need, nor how much of an improvement in fertility this dietary change might produce.
The story notes that the researcher “says there isn’t much harm in consuming more omega 3 fats;” it adds that high doses of omega 3s, in rare cases, increase the risk of hemorrhage in people prone to bleeding problems. That is just enough to merit a satisfactory rating.
It does not mention, however, that omega 3 supplements can cause allergic reactions in people with allergies to either fish or to the plants, seeds or nuts from which the supplements are derived. MayoClinic.org also notes that “there is not enough information at this time regarding the safety of fish oils when used in amounts greater than those found in foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” which suggests that the risks of supplement use could be higher among the most likely audience for this story: women who have been trying to get pregnant.
The Time story acknowledges in the second paragraph that the study involved only mice and notes that more research will be needed to determine whether increasing omega 3 consumption will have any effect on human fertility. But the story provides no sense of what’s involved, or just how challenging it will be, to translate these results to humans. So why report it now when there’s no evidence? We don’t know.
There’s not enough context on the scope of the problem to determine if there was disease-mongering.
This story is brief and includes no sources other than the researcher whose paper is being discussed.
There is no discussion of any other steps women might take to increase their odds of becoming pregnant when they are ready to start a family.
Both omega 3-rich foods and omega 3 supplements are widely available.
The story does not say explicitly that this study is the first to link omega 3 fatty acids with improved fertility in either mice or humans, but the wording implies that the study provided new evidence of such a link: “Now, according to scientists at the University of Colorado, there is even evidence that the healthy fat can boost your chances of getting pregnant.” What the story fails to note is that there already appears to be a significant body of research — in humans — dealing with the connection between omega 3 fatty acid levels and successfully achieving and maintaining pregnancy.
The reporter who wrote this story does appear to have interviewed the lead researcher on the study, so the story does not appear to rely entirely on a news release.