The popularity of fish oil supplements has increased dramatically over the past decade, but studies supporting their heralded health benefits are often conflicting.
Around 10 years ago, fish oil emerged in vast quantities on pharmacy and drug-store shelves, and has since become a staple supplement in most homes at the urging of nutritionists, doctors, and “health-conscious” media junkies. Fish oil has been touted as an all-round good guy when it comes to health, curing anything from heart disease to arthritis.
But, as is typically the case when doctors unanimously agree on something, something fishy is afoot (pun very much intended!).
What are the health benefits of fish oil?
Fish oil is universally applauded for it’s role in the prevention of heart disease. Early research into fish oil supplementation suggested that fish oil lowered high triglycerides, and played a significant role in preventing heart disease and stroke when ingested as per recommended dosages.
However, most recent studies are now finding that there is no positive link between fish oil and heart disease. Multiple randomized trials examining the effects of long term supplementation of fish oil on adults with pre-existing heart conditions found that it had no impact on cardiovascular health. Furthermore, a meta-analysis of fish oil research concluded that there was no evidence to support the claim that fish oil prevents heart disease.
While a number of studies have proven that fish oil does indeed have some positive effects, such as prevention of cardiac death and improvement of several blood markers in those suffering from metabolic syndrome, many have concluded that fish oil can be harmful in a number of ways. In one study, long-term fish oil supplementation actually increased risk of heart disease, while another trial encountered increased insulin resistance in those supplementing with 3 grams of fish oil per day.
So, should you be taking fish oil at all?
As you can see from the above section, the literature regarding fish oil is somewhat conflicting, however it’s safe to say that fish oil isn’t the perfect little angel it’s cracked up to be. Subsequently, you might be asking yourself whether there’s any point in taking the darn stuff, and simultaneously cursing your doctor and the media for so liberally shoving fish oil recommendations down your throat.
Fatty fish and shellfish for Omega-3
Well, as with most things in nutrition, your best solution is to go straight to the source from whence said supplementation came: cold-water fish or shellfish. I know, they’re kind of disgusting, but eating the likes of sardines, mackerel or mussels can pack an Omega-3 punch while providing lots of essential nutrients such as zinc and selenium. Larger cold-water fatty fish like wild salmon are also good, however try to moderate consumption of these bad boys as they tend to accumulate higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals than wee stinkers like sardines.
The point here is that fish oil in isolation may be harmful, while obtaining your Omega-3s from real food sources like sardines and mackerel means you’re getting your fish oil all wrapped up in a delicious health sandwich of nutrients, which likely protect you from the harmful effects of fish oil while promoting absorption and uptake of the health-promoting aspects.
Another thing to keep in mind is that eating plenty of grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy (see more information on this here) should ensure that your Omega-3 to 6 fatty acid ratio remains balanced.
Finally, if you can’t get your hands on some good natural sources of essential fatty acids and absolutely MUST supplement, research-fiend Chris Kresser recommends fermented cod liver oil – it’s super nasty, but it’s packed with Omega-3 and other important nutrients. We recommend this brand.