A small study indicates that adding fish oil to the diet may stave off malnutrition that can result from chemotherapy.

Vera C. Mazurak, PhD, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and colleagues hypothesized that supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil could help persons with advanced cancer maintain or even gain muscle. They conducted a trial in which 16 newly referred patients with non-small-cell lung cancer received 2.2 g fish oil–derived eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) per day from the time they began first-line chemotherapy until completion of that treatment approximately 10 weeks later.

The fish-oil users maintained their weight, whereas 24 similar patients who received no such nutritional intervention lost an average of 2.3 kg (5.1 lbs) during the course of the study. Approximately 69% of persons in the fish-oil group maintained or gained muscle mass, with the greatest gains in muscle seen among those with the greatest increase in plasma EPA concentration after fish-oil supplementation. Only 29% of the patients undergoing standard care maintained muscle mass; overall, that group lost 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of muscle. No difference in total adipose tissue was observed between the two groups.

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“[The fish-oil intervention] holds great promise because currently there is no effective treatment for cancer-related malnutrition,” commented Dr. Mazurak in a statement describing the study results, which were published online ahead of print by the journal Cancer.