One in 10 Americans take fish oil supplements thanks in part to decades-old research. The Inuit—who consumed a diet mainly of whales, seals, and fish—rarely had heart attacks, and researchers speculated in the 1970s that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish guard against them, reports the New York Times. But decades' worth of fish oil pills may have been better dumped down the drain: A new study published in Science provides what the Times calls an "intriguing new twist" to the omega-3 story. In analyzing the DNA of 191 Greenland residents of almost entirely Inuit descent, scientists found they boasted genetic variants that may help them consume high amounts of fat without negative consequences. The find suggests "lessons from the Inuit cannot be extrapolated to other populations," per study author Rasmus Nielsen.
Their genetic mutations helped keep fasting insulin and LDL cholesterol levels low, reports Reuters. The Times notes that Inuit with two copies of one gene variant in particular were an average one inch shorter and weighed 10 pounds less than those without it. The genetic variants—which may have come into play 20,000 years ago—"regulate how much of these omega-3s and omega-6s you make yourself naturally," says Nielsen, per NPR. "We saw that the Inuit have such a high diet of omega-3s, so they produce much less of it themselves." This is "perhaps the most extreme example to date of a genetic adaptation to a specific diet," he adds. In speaking to NPR, a Harvard Medical School geneticist advises caution: It's tough "to go beyond the known biology of these genes and make connections to weight," says Joel Hirschhorn. "They're taking a leap of faith." (This isn't the first study to throw fish oil benefits in doubt.)