Not all fats are created equal. Some types of fat including omega-3s in fatty fish have health benefits and are a good replacement for saturated fat. Unfortunately, not all people enjoy the taste of fish. Some people who don’t eat fish turn to fish oil supplements in hopes of getting the benefits of eating fish without the fishy taste. Unfortunately, if a new study holds water, you may be missing out if you get your omega-3s in pill form.
Omega-3s, Fatty Fish and Health
Recently, an international group of researchers analyzed a group of 38 studies looking at omega-3s and stroke risk. One of the potential benefits of omega-3s is they reduce inflammation, including inflammation inside blood vessels that leads to heart attacks and strokes. After analyzing these studies, involving almost 800,000 people around the world, there was good news and bad news for people who take supplements.
The good news? This study found that eating at least two servings of fatty fish a week reduced stroke risk by about 6% while eating five or more servings a week lowered stroke risk by 12%.
The bad news? Unlike getting fish through diet, taking fish oil or omega-3 supplements didn’t have a significant impact on stroke risk.
Diet is Better than Supplements
This isn’t the first study to show that getting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other components through diet is healthier than taking a pill. For example, recent studies showed that taking supplemental calcium may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Other research has shown an increased cancer risk among smokers who took vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements, despite the fact that natural beta-carotene appears to protect against certain types of cancer.
Why might this be?
Supplements isolate out a single component of food and package it into pill form. It’s more convenient to pop a fish oil supplement than it is to cook a piece of wild salmon, but you miss out on all of the other vitamins and minerals that are naturally present in fish. It’s likely that the omega-3s in fish interact with other nutrients to exert their anti-inflammatory health benefits and lower the risk of stroke. When you swallow a supplement you’re getting an isolated component of what fish has to offer. Plus, you don’t always know what you’re getting when you purchase supplements. It’s possible for a supplement to have more or less of the ingredients listed on the bottle.
As the researchers in this study point out, factors other than omega-3s could account for the lower stroke risk. The fact that people who eat fish are more health conscious is one possible explanation. Still, researchers believe that getting omega-3s naturally through diet offers benefits. There just isn’t enough evidence to show that supplements offer the same protection.
Time to Eat More Fish?
If you’ve been putting off eating fish, believing that a fish oil supplement offers the same benefits as the whole fish, it may be time to rethink your position. You can get the benefits of the omega-3s in fish along with other the other vitamins and minerals that make fish such a healthy choice for the dinner table. For example, did you know that a three-ounce serving of salmon has 22 grams of protein and only 155 calories? It’s also rich in B-vitamins and selenium. You won’t get that when you pop a fish oil supplement.
The Bottom Line?
Make room for fish on the table instead of counting on fish oil supplements to give you the health benefits of fish. If the recent research holds true, they may not come through.
Science Daily. “Couple of Weekly Portions of Oily Fish Can Help Ward Off Stroke; But Fish Oil Supplements Don’t Have the Same Effect, Study Finds”
N. Eng. J. Medicine 1994 Apr 14;330(15):1029-35.
BMJ, 2011; 342 (apr19 1): d2040 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d2040.