Fish Oil Da Bomb or Debatable?
consensus among medical and health professionals—fish oil capsules are good for you—is now a matter of contentious debate. My how times have changed! Those glistening, gold capsules, thought to do everything from protecting the heart and easing inflammation to improving mental health and lengthening life, are now under suspicion. However, Americans have clung passionately to their “miracle” supplement; so much so that sales of over-the-counter fish oil capsules is a billion-dollar-a-year market. Companies put it in milk, yogurt, juice, cookies, chocolate, and a host of other products. Fish oil is the third most used dietary supplement in the U.S. behind vitamins and minerals.
How did all this get started anyway?
A study done in the 1970s cast a spotlight on Inuit Indians living in Greenland that found their population suffered less cardiovascular disease than the rest of the civilized world. The conclusion? Fish, seal, and whale blubber made up a high percentage of their diet. The assumption was the omega-3 fatty acid found in the fish and, more specifically, the oil in fish was the reason.
Since we need omega-3, and our bodies do not manufacture this particular essential amino acid, fish oil seemed like a no brainer. Other research began cropping up to support that logic.
An Italian study in the 1990s indicated that mortality dropped for heart attack sufferers who added a gram of fish oil to their daily routine. Over a decade ago, the American Heart Association went so far as to endorse fish oil as a great way to add omega-3’s to all our diets. Fast forward to today where fully 10 percent of all Americans take a fish oil supplement on a regular basis.
So, what’s the problem?
Studies now show that the hype over fish oil may be a little well, hyped. In fact, according to Dr. James Stein, the director of preventive cardiology at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, “…There has been a spate of studies showing no benefit. Among them was a clinical trial of 12,000 people, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, that found that a gram of fish oil daily did not reduce the rate of death from heart attacks and strokes in people with evidence of atherosclerosis.”
Dr. Stein goes on to compare the early days of fish oil study with the climate today. At the time, cardiovascular disease was treated much differently than now. Statins, beta-blockers, blood thinners, and other intensive therapies were not the staples we have today. “The standard of care is so good today that adding something as small as a fish oil capsule doesn’t move the needle of difference,” he said. “It’s hard to improve it with an intervention that’s not very strong.”
Another review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that—in spite of the many claims about omega-3 supplements—they don’t actually lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, or death. Period.
Now what are we supposed to do?
According to leading cardiologists and nutritionists, we don’t need to throw out the fish oil with the fish. The benefits of adding fish to our diets still hold. We still need omega-3 fatty acids in our diets. They play an important role in brain function, normal growth and development, and inflammation control. Those Inuits, though their numbers may not be as generous as once thought, still had impressive cardiovascular health. Perhaps there are other substances in fish besides the oil that our bodies need. So, we eat the fish.
Plus, for those who aren’t convinced—or who aren’t fish eaters—there are other sources of omega-3 fatty acids to explore. Plant-based omega-3 sources include soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseed.
Experts say, if your doctor prescribed a fish oil supplement, by all means take it. But, if you are taking fish oil because you generally think it might do you some good, you may want to stop. Not only are you wasting money on a supplement that can’t compare to the food it comes from, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. People who take blood thinners, aspirin, or “super-aspirin” and fish oil can develop nosebleeds or pronounced bruising.
The bottom line—stick with a diet rich in the right foods instead of depending on supplements to fill in the gaps. You’ll be healthier. You’ll certainly enjoy the taste more—fish oil people can relate to that. And you can watch the fish oil debate swirl on around you without a care in the world.