Omega-3 and fish oil supplements grew in popularity after studies showed these healthy fats reduce inflammation and may lower the risk of some chronic health problems including stroke and heart disease. Some research even showed they slow down chromosomal aging and protect against memory loss due to aging. They even seem to have a positive impact on mood in people suffering from depression or anxiety. You could almost hear the mad stampede to stock up on fish oil supplements as more benefits were discovered. Is it all too good to be true?
Fish Oil Supplements Called Into Question
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that analyzed a number of omega-3 studies involving over 70,000 people came to a sobering conclusion. Omega-3 or fish oil supplements don’t protect against heart disease or stroke. Not good news for those who stocked up on fish oil supplements in hopes of living longer or at least avoiding a stay in the coronary care unit.
But the news isn’t all bad. A recently released meta-analysis that looked at multiple omega-3 studies, involving 800,000 people, found that people who enjoy two to four servings of fish a week have a small but significant reduction in stroke risk. In terms of omega-3 supplements, they came to the same conclusion the JAMA study. Fish oil supplements don’t offer the same benefits as getting fish through diet.
Omega-3’s: Diet Not Supplements
No doubt it’s more convenient to swallow a capsule than it is to get vitamins, minerals, and nutrients through diet, but the benefits are not always the same. One example is a study that focused on the health benefits of beta-carotene supplements. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that can be converted to vitamin A in the body. It’s abundant in healthy “orange” foods like carrots and sweet potatoes. Dietary beta-carotene has been linked with a lower risk of some types of cancer, but when researchers supplemented smokers with beta-carotene and a derivative of vitamin A, their risk of cancer, heart disease, and overall mortality went up. Not a glowing endorsement for beta-carotene supplements. Yet few would argue that beta-carotene in foods has health benefits.
Will fish oil supplements go the way of beta-carotene supplements? Possibly but that doesn’t undermine the health benefits of fish. In fact, this recent study strengthens the argument for getting omega-3s naturally by eating fish. Why is it better to get omega-3s through diet? In foods, omega-3s are a part of a larger complex and are free to interact with other components in fish to exert their benefits. When omega-3s are isolated from fish, processed and packaged, they lose some of their heart-healthy benefits. The same may be true for omega-3s in fortified foods. Supermarkets are now filled with packaged products that contain added omega-3s like margarine and peanut butter, but do they offer the same benefits as eating fish? Probably not. You’re better off heading over to the frozen food aisle and dropping a package of wild-caught frozen salmon in your cart.
Add More Fish to the Table
The American Heart Association still stands behind the heart-healthy benefits of fish. They recommend eating two servings of fish low in mercury twice a week. Good choices are smaller fatty fish like sardines and wild-caught salmon since they’re lower in mercury than fish high in the food chain. Fish isn’t just a good choice because of the omega-3s it contains – it’s also low in calories and an excellent source of protein. Unfortunately, most Americans only eat about 3.5 ounces of fish a week, less than half the recommended amount.
Next time you pass the fresh or frozen fish aisle at the supermarket, think of the Greenland Eskimos. The mainstay of their diet is fish, and they have very low rates of heart disease. They get their omega-3s the best way possible – through diet. Why shouldn’t you?
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American Heart Association.
Science Daily. “Benefits of Eating Fish Greatly Outweigh The Risks, New Study Says”
Nutraingredients.com. “Omega-3 Supplementation Could Help Slow Biological Aging”