February 20, 2020
Half of Americans take at least one dietary supplement every day hoping to improve their health or prevent illness. Fish oil pills, which have been associated with heart health, are one of the most widely consumed of these supplements.
But do they really work? Is it better to reap the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil pills through a healthy diet or perhaps another supplement?
What Is Fish Oil?
Let’s start by understanding the omega-3s found in fish oil.
The human body is capable of producing almost all of the required fatty acids for optimal health. One exception is the omega-3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). We call these essential fatty acids because they cannot be created or synthesized in the human body. They must be consumed in the diet or through supplementation.
ALA is a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid and can be found in a host of healthful plant-based foods like flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Although ALA can be converted to the longer-chain DHA and EPA, the human body can only convert ALA to DHA and EPA in small and inadequate amounts. Because of this, people should consume these long-chain omega-3 fatty acids directly from a marine-based source such as fatty ocean fish, shellfish, algae, and kelp.
Fish Oil vs. Algae?
Fast fact: We often refer to long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA as “fish oil.” However, fish do not produce DHA or EPA naturally—they are found in the algae that fish eat. This is why an algae supplement substitute can be an environmentally-conscious and animal-friendly alternative to “fish oil” supplements. Consider this especially if you are prone to “fishy burps” or “fishy after-taste.”
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Based on research conducted over the past 20 years, the American Heart Association has long pointed to the cardiovascular benefits of consuming foods rich marine omega-3 fatty acids, including these nutrients’ potential to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce triglyceride levels—a type of fat (lipid) in your blood
- Stabilize blood flow in and around the heart
- Reduce inflammation
Research has provided mixed results when it comes to benefits from omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements until recently. In 2018 and 2019, a few large trials revealed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may indeed be beneficial for those at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Farmer or Pharma
The best path toward heart health for most people is following a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains which are loaded with ALA (short chain omega-3 FA).
Additionally, it is important to consume long-chain omega-3-rich foods aimed at a minimum of 250 mg and maximum of 1000 mg of combined DHA and EPA daily. This means consuming two servings of fatty ocean fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring or sardines weekly.
Alternatively, you may supplement with over-the-counter marine-based omega-3 fatty acids (from fish or algae) that contain at least 250 mg daily of combined DHA and EPA.
Talk to your medical provider about whether an omega-3 product is the best option for you.