Fish oil is the third most commonly taken supplement in the U.S., but is it worthy of such popularity and widespread use? We do think there’s enough evidence to use fish oil—and other omega-3 supplements—as a dietary supplement for targeted results, but to simply say that fish oil is good for your heart and good for weight loss isn’t good enough. And depending on how it’s presented, it can be downright misleading.
While there is some evidence to suggest that fish oil can be good for overall heart health, the big thing it can do for you is to lower your triglyceride levels. (Triglycerides are a kind of fat cell in the blood that the body can use to store energy.) This alone should have some benefit in promoting a healthy heart and metabolic system. Still, it’s a long way to go from showing lower triglyceride levels to showing better health outcomes overall.
Take weight loss, for example. Studies show that fish oil may not help you lose weight so much as prevent and mitigate abdominal weight gain in particular. In other words, if you struggle with weight in your midsection, fish oil may be a smart supplement to take in combination with a leaner diet and healthier exercise routine. (For men and women alike, abdominal obesity is the most dangerous kind in terms of health outcomes and mortality rates.)
The studies and claims made surrounding cancer, mental health, and other health conditions are mixed and inconclusive. For cancer, in particular, you can find studies that suggest fish oil increases your risk of some cancers and decreases your risk in others. Looking for a roundup of various studies on fish oil? Check out this news resource.
Still, alternative medicine isn’t isolationist medicine. We do think taking a fish oil supplement can be right for a lot of people. On the other hand, many people also have limited resources. It might make more sense, for example, to spend your disposable income on higher-quality foods that are rich in omega-3. But maybe you can’t stand fish and aren’t all that crazy about other sources of omega-3 (walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and soy). The best use of a fish oil may not be as a diet “supplement” so much as a diet “substitute.”
The Chemistry of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This article does a good job of explaining the different health benefits between the two acids. Although EPA is better for many of fish oil’s purported health benefits, especially as an anti-inflammatory, it’s the less well known DHA that’s likely better for stroke prevention and brain health, as it’s believed the longer DHA chain does a better job in maintaining a healthy brain. The article also reminded us that both EPA and DHA are shown to reduce triglyceride levels, which may help explain why this effect is so widely observed.
Don’t Overdo It
There aren’t a lot of acute dangers with taking in a bunch of omega-3 fatty acids, but you still don’t want to overdo it. Excessive amounts can lead to heavy bleeding and anticoagulant properties. Rash and nosebleeds are another potential side effect. Daily consumption of up to 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids is generally recognized as safe. But again, it’s also important to account for the omega-3 that’s already in your diet.
- Practical Tip—Burping, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, and diarrhea are also potential side effects with fish oil. Look to eliminate these side effects by freezing and/or taking the supplements with a meal. If you still experience negative side effects, you might try krill oil or isolated EPA or DHA supplements. You may also want to talk to your doctor about the trade-offs and alternative supplements and medications that can help you achieve comparable health benefits.