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More likely to frighten than inform

Rating

3 Star

Pregnant Women: Get More Omega-3s

Our Review Summary

This story had some useful information. It does a nice job explaining what omega-3 fatty acids are and how they are related to development in babies. It also gives an overview of general recommendations for omega-3 intake and fish consumption during pregnancy. But we were hoping for more critical interpretation of the new study which is the news hook for the story. And while it does mention a study that critically examines some claims about omega-3s in pregnancy, the story also drops a litany of scary-sounding conditions — lower IQs, attention deficit disorders, asthma and allergies, preterm labor, preeclampsia, postpartum depression, stillbirth, early infant death! — that are supposedly linked to insufficient omega-3 intake. We think the cumulative effect of this barrage is more likely to frighten than inform.

 

Why This Matters

The eating habits of Americans are constantly under scrutiny, and never more so than during pregnancy. So we should be careful about adding another food or nutrient to the list of things that pregnant women need to worry about. While there’s evidence that omega-3 intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding is important for neurologic development in children, this story doesn’t offer enough analysis or critical perspective on that relationship. The message that “most women aren’t getting enough” — attached to so many serious problems — is needlessly frightening.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention of costs in the story, but if people want to take DHA supplements, they cost between $15 to $40 for 180 pills, which should last you from 3 to 6 months, according to Amazon.

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

Satisfactory

We’ll give this a borderline Satisfactory grade. The story gives us the following: “The researchers found that only 27 percent of women during pregnancy and 25 percent of women three-months postpartum were meeting those DHA recommendations.”  The story also provides some detail on the perceived health benefits of DHA, which include infant brain and nervous system development and red blood cell production. It also mentioned some unnamed, inconclusive studies – which showed that omega-3 intake during pregnancy could be associated with lower risks for preterm birth, preeclampsia and other obstetrics complications – but also pointed out other studies that have contradicted these findings.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story did mention the harms of low intake of DHA in pregnant women, and it warned about consumption of high-mercury fish species. But it lacked a critical perspective on prolonged omega-3 intake at higher doses. First, there is the general concern about quality control in dietary supplements and the risk of contamination. And pregnant women especially may not be thrilled by the “fish burp” that often accompanies regular use of fish oil supplements. In addition, Mayo Clinic has a whole page dedicated to the safety concerns of omega-3 fatty acids and cautions “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.” The main concerns with omega-3 are that it may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if taken at higher doses.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story focused on the finding that pregnant women “aren’t getting enough” DHA, but it failed to make clear that the new research does not include any maternal or child outcomes. This study was merely showing that intake is below the recommendations, and it didn’t tie this apparent shortfall to any meaningful health effects. That’s important context, because while low intake of omega-3s is associated lower scores on cognitive development measures, it hasn’t been proven that taking supplements will improve those outcomes. Another important limitation of this study was that it was retrospective in nature. It relied on the memories of the participants, who recalled what they had ingested 24 hours prior. The study did not independently try to confirm what the participants reported, such as analyzing the fatty acids content of their blood.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

For a pregnant woman, this story is frightening. There is talk of preeclampsia, preterm birth, stillbirth, ADHD… pretty much the whole gamut. “Lower cognitive development” is said to be associated with “crying and poor sleep” (what infant doesn’t experience “crying and poor sleep”?!) The story also throws out the following statistic —  “73 percent lower risk of stillbirth or early infant death if they began supplementation by 20 weeks into their pregnancies”.  The story suggests that this finding came from a review of 34 studies, but we couldn’t substantiate that claim. The published study that we found mentions only 9 studies in the review, and the vast majority of data for the stillbirth/early infant death statistic came from only 2 studies in the review. And the risk went from a low rate of 1.2% to an even lower 0.3%.

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

Satisfactory

The study authors did not report any conflicts of interest, and the story quotes a contributing study author, as well as two other researchers who study maternal-fetal medicine. This is enough for a satisfactory rating, although the article missed a valuable opportunity to add a more critical perspective to the story through comments from the independent researchers.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story does a good job comparing alternatives and informing the reader of different ways to get more DHA. It recommends eating foods rich in DHA, like fish or shellfish, or taking fish-oil supplements.

The article also guides the reader on plant sources of omega-3s, which aren’t as beneficial as the fish-oil kind, it says.

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

Not Applicable

The availability of fish or shellfish isn’t a question, although the article could have mentioned that omega-3 supplements are found in most health food stores. We’ll rate this Not Applicable.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The article makes it clear that the study’s findings are new.

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

Satisfactory

The U.S. News and World Report article does not seem to be based on this press release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory

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