Are Fish Oil Pills Good For You?

Are fish oil pills good for you? Should you be taking them? Pritikin's dietitians give you the basics on fish oil and cardiovascular disease prevention.

Our love affair with fish oils began in the 1970s when scientists started speculating that the Eskimos of Greenland had lower rates of heart attacks than their neighbors in Denmark because their diet was rich in whale blubber and seal meat.

Pros and Cons of Fish Oil Pills

Research indicates that there does appear to be a protective effect of eating food, like salmon and sardines, that are rich in omega-3s.

Today scientists are still studying the major omega-3 fats found in fish – EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Research over the last two decades focused on people who already had heart disease or multiple risk factors. The benefits of EPA/DHA appeared to be a decrease in blood clotting, lowering of triglyceride levels, and anti-arrhythmic and anti-inflammation qualities, all beneficial in the prevention of heart disease and stroke, and possibly, some forms of cancer.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School are now launching a new trial, called VITAL, and a key goal is finding out if EPA + DHA (1,000 mg a day) can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer in people who have no history of these diseases.

Are fish oil pills good for you?

If you’re considering taking an omega-3 supplement, we suggest you take the following steps:

  • First, assess your current fish intake.

    You may already be consuming significant – and optimal – amounts of omega-3 fatty acids if you’re eating fish (3-1/2 to 4-ounce servings, 2 to 3 times a week), especially fish high in omega-3 content like salmon, sardines, herring, and trout.

  • Second, assess your current walnut and flaxseed intake.

    If you’re consuming walnuts and flaxseeds every day, which is fine if you’re not trying to lose weight (nuts are calorie dense), you may be consuming significant omega-3 fatty acids.

Read the fine print on fish oil bottles.

If you’re not eating fish or walnuts/flaxseeds regularly, keep these guidelines in mind when shopping for omega-3 capsules.

  • Always be wary of what the front of the label says. For instance, just because a supplement bottle says it contains 3,000 mg of “fish oil” does not mean you are taking 3,000 mg of omega-3.
  • Turn the bottle around. First, check out the portion size (most omega-3 supplements are 2 capsules per serving) to be sure you are taking the correct amount.
  • Now, focus on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Scroll down the label until you see “Omega 3” or “EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).” These are the specific strands of omega-3 oils you want to be taking.
  • Now, add up the amounts of EPA and DHA that are in the supplement, and that will tell you how much omega-3 you are actually taking. We usually recommend finding a supplement that provides about 1,000 mg of omega-3 a day.
  • Keep in mind that most fish oil capsules contain only about 30 percent EPA and DHA. So a bottle that says “1,000 mg” of fish oil on the front may contain just 300 mg of EPA and DHA. Look for more concentrated supplements (Nature Made, for example). In 2 capsules, you’re getting 720 mg of EPA/DHA.
  • Be mindful that too much omega-3 can have negative effects, like blood thinning.
  • Also be sure to communicate with your doctor that you are taking omega-3 supplements.

Bottom Line: Are fish oil pills good for you? Possibly, if you’re not getting enough omega 3 fatty acids from food. But use the guidelines above to make sure you’re getting pills that have plenty of omega-3, but not too much.

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