Omega-3 Fatty Acids | Benefits and Risks

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that has been shown to protect against heart disease. Fish oils are rich in omega-3 fats.

But there may also be downsides to omega-3s. Learn about omega-3 fatty acids’ benefits and risks from Dr. James Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Kenney has educated thousands at Pritikin, a weight-loss resort, on food and health.

Fish Oil Benefits and Risks

Learn about omega-3 fatty acids, both benefits and risks. And find out what's probably better for you: fish oil pills or a fish dinner.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids | Benefits

The benefits appear numerous, but exactly how omega-3s protect against heart disease is still under investigation. They generally do not lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, but they may reduce cardiovascular events by reducing blood clotting, lowering levels of inflammation, stabilizing heart rhythm, and/or lowering triglyceride levels.

Regardless of the mechanism, the evidence that an inadequate intake of these essential fatty acids increases the risk of dying from a heart attack is compelling.

Benefits and Risk of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Both fish and nuts have omega-3 fatty acids, but they’re not the same type of omega-3s, which means these foods may not provide the same benefits.

EPA/DHA

Examples of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include most seafood, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, whitefish, and trout. The omega-3s in fish are mostly longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids, called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

ALA

Some plant foods have a shorter-chain form of omega-3 fatty acids, called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Foods containing ALA include soy products, such as tofu and soybeans (edamame), as well as some nuts and seeds, like flaxseeds and walnuts.

But here’s the problem: We have good evidence that EPAs and DHAs protect against heart disease. We have insufficient evidence that ALAs do the same. It’s likely they help. But some researchers believe that at least some of our omega-3s should be the longer-chain types, found mostly in fish.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids | Risks

Do keep in mind that large excesses of omegas-3s can increase the risk of bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke. Omega-3s in large amounts might also increase the risk of some cancers, including prostate cancer.

Safe Recommendations

If you’re consuming fish two to three times a week, as the Pritikin Eating Plan recommends, you’re likely getting plenty of omega-3s for heart health, but not enough to cause any harm.

Bottom Line On Omega-3 Fatty Acids | Benefits and Risks

Most physicians prefer that their patients consume longer-chain omega-3s – the EPA and DHA fatty acids found in fish. And when prescribing fish oil pills to lower high triglycerides and/or reduce inflammation, they specify supplements largely made up of EPA and DHA.

But most people do not need to take omega-3 pills, and large doses may cause more harm than benefit.

Do Fish Oil Pills Work?

Moreover, recent research has called into question the effectiveness of supplements.  Some scientists are asking: “Do fish oil pills work?  Do they actually have cardiovascular benefits?”

At Pritikin, we stress that foods naturally rich in omega 3s, like fish, are almost always a better choice than pills.

Meal Plan For Health & Weight Loss

This 5-day healthy meal plan for weight loss can help not only shed weight but also prevent and control heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Healthy Meal Plan For Weight Loss

The Big Picture

Most importantly, remember that no single item – whether it’s omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, or anything else promoted as the latest “superfood” – can ever match the benefits of an overall healthy food and fitness program like Pritikin.

With the Pritikin Program, you’re not just getting omega-3s. You’re also substantially increasing your intake of all heart-healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. And you’re steering clear of major heart-damagers like red meat, full-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils.

All these dietary improvements, plus regular physical activity, add up to priceless, proven benefits.

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