The truth about fish oil supplements

The humble fish oil supplement has been prized as a miraculous panacea… but what does the science say?
The truth about fish oil supplements

What drew us to fish oil is the same thing that draws most people to it. We’re approaching *ahem* a certain age; heart rate elevated, energy diminished, and we’re trying to avoid needing to go to the doctor’s anytime soon.

And in every internet shakedown for a nonpharmaceutical solution to literally any health problem ever, the answer is omega-3, i.e. what fish oil tablets are made of.

Omega-3 may “improve bone and joint health”, “help prevent coronary heart disease”, “build muscle in older adults”, the list goes on. To put it simply, the internet seems to think omega-3 is no less than a cure for middle age itself. 

But what is omega-3? And why must we take it in supplement form? Here’s everything you need to know about fish oil supplements, and how you can get enough omega-3 without choking down a massive pill.

What is omega-3?

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that are essential for good health. They’re mainly beneficial for the heart, helping to lower LDL cholesterol. They also contribute to brain function and proper cell growth.

Humans (the advanced creatures that we are) cannot make them so we have to get them from other sources. The best way to get omega-3s is by eating fatty fish, like tuna and salmon. Because it’s not always easy to chomp down fish fillets, fish oil supplements have become a popular alternative.

The Research

Unfortunately, research doesn't clearly show that you get the same benefit from fish oil that you do from eating actual fish. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, a recent study found that out of 18 randomised clinical trials looking at fish oil use, 16 studies did not demonstrate any health benefits. Only two demonstrated positive health benefits. Eek.

The American Heart Association did however find that patients after a heart attack who took 4-gram doses of omega-3 from fish oil had a better prognosis than those taking a placebo. 4-grams. In English: that is a lot. That’s equal to consuming at least 8 of those gargantuan pills a day. That's four times the dose that people normally take. Double eek.

As if that’s not disheartening enough, there are other potential concerns about fish oil tablets. There is far too much plastic debris in the ocean which may end up being consumed by fish. Toxic chemicals in the plastic end up stored in fish as fat, which may eventually end up in us through fish oil supplement consumption.

The bottom line: try to get your omega-3s from food whenever possible.

As most of the evidence for the benefits of omega-3s comes from studies of regular fish consumption, you’re better off just eating fish. The recommended fish intake to get a healthy amount of omega-3 is two 140g portions of fish per week.

For the vegans out there: all hope is not lost. Algal oils are a terrific source of plant-based omega-3 and do not carry the same risks and side effects (i.e. nausea, heartburn and the dreaded fishy breath) as fish oil. Additionally, walnuts, olive oil, and flaxseed contain alpha linolenic acid which our bodies can convert into the other forms of omega-3 (though this isn’t the most efficient solution).

For now, the truth about fish oil remains, like fish itself, slippery.

Photos: Instagram