Fish Oil Supplements: Saving Lives or Snake Oil?

3 min read  |  January 16, 2018  | 

For years, millions of Americans have trusted omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) supplements to protect their hearts by helping to prevent cardiovascular diseases. But, a 2017 science advisory from the American Heart Association warns that most consumers aren’t actually getting these heart health benefits.

Multiple research studies have shown no significant evidence that fish oil supplements help prevent heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation or heart failure in the general population. However, these supplements have proven to help prevent death from heart disease among those who are the most at risk due to a recent heart attack or heart failure.

The American Heart Association endorses research that shows a low dose of omega-3 fish oil supplements reduced death and hospitalization by 9% in patients with congestive heart failure. But, the same studies caused researchers to conclude that “We cannot make a recommendation to use omega-3 fish oil supplements for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease at this time.”

What are omega-3 fatty acids? 

According to Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the University of Miami Health System, there are two types of fats found in food – saturated and unsaturated. 

One category of unsaturated fatty acids is the omega 3 fatty acids, which includes ALA (alpha linolenic acid) DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapaentaenoic acid) and help with important body functions that go beyond the cardiovascular system.  For instance, DHA and EPA have been connected to brain and vision development, and they may have anti-inflammatory properties.

Fish oil vs. actual fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in a number of different foods, which according to Rarback, is actually the preferred way to increase your intake of the nutrient.

“I always recommend my patients go to the source by eating more fatty fish,” Rarback explains. “The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fatty fish a week. This includes salmon, tuna, and sardines. Fresh or canned, you can’t go wrong.”

Forgoing fish oil pills is better for a few reasons, says Rarback. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate dietary supplements and they may not be safe for people with fish allergies. Plus, they can cause side effects like gas, fish burps, diarrhea and bad breath.

As a cardiovascular patient, there may be one more reason to get your omega-3s from actual food – fish oil supplements can interact with blood-thinners like warfarin.

The potential benefit of taking omega-3 supplements depends on your heart health.

It’s not a miracle pill for preventing heart attacks, but fish oil supplements may save lives for those with already compromised cardiovascular systems impacted by a recent heart attack or heart failure.

Also, if you do decide to increase omega-3s in your diet, eating food high in DHA and EPA like fish is the way to go.

Written by a staff writer at Uhealth.

Tags: DHA, EPA, fatty acid, fish oil supplements, health, heart health, Omega 3, Sheah Rarback, unsaturated fats

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