Can Fish Oil Stop Parents From Fighting?

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New research out of UMass claims to show that giving your kids a supplement can help you and your partner be less violent towards each other. Yeah, again, that’s your kid getting the supplement, but you getting the benefit. What the fuck? Let’s discuss!

This is a really weird, really interesting study that was just published in the journal Aggressive Behavior. It involved two groups of kids and their parents. One group got fish oil supplements (the kind that have mega-3 fatty acids) and the other got a placebo. The main researcher told a UMass newsletter, “Giving children omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduces disruptive behavior, which in turn had a positive effect on their parents, making them less likely to argue with each other and engage in other verbal abuse.” Pretty cool, right? And it’s a placebo-controlled, double-blinded, randomized trial that involved a total of 200 kids plus their parents. Not bad.

Now that I’ve talked it up a bit, let’s talk about what’s wrong with it. The first sign that something is off is the declared conflict of interest: the study is funded by Smartfish Recharge, a company that sells omega-3-enhanced fruit drinks, which is what was given to the children. Not a reason to discount the study, because we all gotta get paid, but it is a red flag that made me perk up and look a little more deeply.

Another (minor) issue is that fish oil trials are tricky, because these supplements have a faint fishy aftertaste and can result in fishy burps, which the controls don’t have, so it’s possible that subjects might know which group they’re in. It’s unlikely, but still makes these studies a little tricky.

Now let’s get into the bigger problems. The researcher says that the children taking the supplements showed reduced disruptive behavior, but according to the data, they measured both physical assault and psychological aggression in the children when the study started, six months later at its conclusion, and then finally after one year. When it came to physical assault, the omega-3 group showed statistically significant reduction after 6 months but not after 12. The control group showed statistically significant reduction after 12 months, but not after 6. That’s the “disruptive behavior” change that the researcher mentioned in the interview.

When it came to psychological aggression, though, there was no statistical change in the Omega-3 group after six or twelve months, though there was a slight increase in aggression at 12. The placebo group, meanwhile, did have a statistically significant reduction after 6 months, and still kept it down after a year. So with those two data points, psychological and physical aggression, it actually looks like the control group performed better than the omega-3 group.

The data shows a similar problem for the caregivers. They only measured (or only reported) psychological aggression, where the control group had a significant reduction after six months but that slightly rose back up after a year (though still under the original baseline). The omega-3 group showed no significant reduction after 6 months, and then finally showed a significant reduction after a year. So six months after the children stopped taking omega-3 supplements, the parents got nicer to each other.

So yeah, I’m not exactly blown away. It looks like the researchers were looking at several different possible outcomes and chose only the ones that show the result they want — also known as p-hacking, which I discussed last week when talking about the “cell phones cause cancer” fear-mongering.

It’s a shame, because omega-3s definitely have something going for them, scientists are just not sure what. It seems like only the supplement industry is producing studies that say they’re life-savers, drowning out the larger, more comprehensive studies that find that there’s not much there to indicate the supplements are worth taking (even though there is some evidence to suggest that eating less meat and more fish might give you benefits that the pills can’t). For more info on that, go check out Paul Greenberg’s article in the Guardian thoroughly explaining the fishy nature of fishy pills. And always be a little skeptical of an industry pumping out articles talking about how great the industry is.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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