Omega 3 fats – also known as “healthy fats” and monounsaturated fats – have gained wide attention for their potential health benefits. Omega-3’s are found in fatty fish like tuna, salmon, trout and herring. You can get about 1 gram of omega-3 fats in a 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish.
Types of Omega-3 Fats
There are 3 types of omega-3 fats.
- ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) – is a short chain omega-3 fat found in plant oils like walnut, olive, and soybean. ALA can be converted into DHA, but only in small amounts.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – is a long chain omega-3 fat found in fish oil, as well as breast milk and baby formula. DHA is a structural component of the brain, skin, and eyes and plays a role in cognitive health and mental health.
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – is another long chain omega-3 fat, also found in fish oil. EPA is most associated with health benefits related to inflammation.
Most fish oil supplements contain a combination of EPA and DHA. There are a wide variety of purported health benefits to taking omega-3/fish oil supplements, and lots of research has been done to investigate them. So far, according to the research, omega-3’s are found to be:
- High triglycerides – one fish oil supplement, Lovaza, has been FDA approved to lower high triglycerides.
Likely effective for
- Heart Disease – research shows getting omega-3 fats from fish can reduce the risk of developing heart disease, and eating fish or taking a supplement can also reduce the risk of dying prematurely in people with heart disease. However, using heart medications like statins can reduce the health effect of fish oil supplements.
Possibly effective for
- High blood pressure – omega-3 fat seems to be able to expand blood vessels and has been shown to reduce blood pressure modestly in people with high blood pressure
- Weight loss – some evidence suggests that eating fish can reduce blood sugar and improve weight loss, but only in people with high blood pressure. Some preliminary research found a particular supplement significantly boosted weight loss when combined with exercise (well, duh, exercise boosts weight loss too!).
Possibly ineffective for
- Reducing muscle soreness after exercise
- Preventing migraines
- Stomach ulcers
Likely ineffective for
- Type 2 diabetes – there isn’t really any evidence that fish oil lowers blood sugar, but it does have other benefits for people with type 2 diabetes (like lowering triglycerides).
Finally, there is not enough evidence to rate the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements for numerous other conditions. I just focused on the highlights, but you can read the full list with descriptions form NIH here.
How Much Should You Take?
The right does depends on your particular condition and goals. For example, to lower triglycerides you’d take 1-4 g/day of fish oil, whereas for depression you’d take 9.6 grams per day along with an antidepressant.
But a lot of you are athletes, so how much should you take? The best recommendation for athletes is 1-2 grams per day, with a 2:1 ratio of EPA and DHA.
Fish oil can interact with certain medicines – birth control may negate the triglyceride lowering effect of fish oils
Deciding To Take Fish Oils
- The health benefits, obviously. We could all use a little heart disease prevention, whether we’re at risk or 22 and healthy.
- The American diet is woefully low in omega-3 fats compared to omega-6 fats, and a lot of research shows that this ratio is important for health. Even if you’re paleo, you could be getting plenty of omega-6’s from olive oil and nuts. We should be aiming for an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 2:1, or more ideally 1:1, but experts estimate most Americans ratio is closer to 6:1.
- They help you avoid mercury. Mercury is a metal found in a lot of seafood. The problem with mercury is that it accumulates, so there may only be a little mercury in the small fish, but by the time the big fish eats the medium fish that ate lots of small fish… a good deal of mercury has built up. The bigger, fatty fish have the highest levels of omega-3 fats, but also the highest mercury levels. This makes it hard to eat fatty fish 3-4 times per week, especially for pregnant women.
- Salmon can be expensive (and I’m not a sardine fan). If you’re watching your budget like I (and many Americans) am, a $30-40 bottle of fish oil that lasts over a month is cheaper than $26 per lb salmon 3 times a week.
- Quality fish oils can also be expensive. Canned sardines, if you like them, would be a cheaper alternative.
- It may not be effective if you take certain types of medications. For example, birth control pills can reduce the triglyceride lowering ability of fish oil, and statins can negate the effectiveness of fish oil in lowering cholesterol and reducing heart disease risk. It may also cause problems in people taking blood clotting or anti-coagulating medicines.
- It’s not paleo. For the same reason I said protein powder wasn’t paleo. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad for you. But if you’re committed to wearing sandals, living in a cave, and not consuming anything that’s been even remotely processed, clearly these aren’t for you.
It’s no secret I almost always tilt in favor of food over supplements. But when it comes to fish oil, I’m a fan. It’s probably the only supplement I’d actively recommend to clients, and if you take one supplement, this is the one.
One final thought: it is important to pay attention and read labels when you’re picking a fish oil brand. I used to love recommending the Nature Made 1200 mg burp less variation, but after I did my research I realized it had gelatin and some other stuff in there, and didn’t really tell me where the omega-3s come from (which means probably not fish). I know, big time nutritionist fail. Then I bought the SFH fish oil from the gym (the tangerine and lemon flavors are pretty good), and realized it has 3.7 grams per serving. Make sure your label indicates that the fish oil is from FISH, doesn’t contain any other additives like gelatin, and the serving size is right.
Do you have a favorite brand of fish oil? Let me know in the comments!