The answer is more friend than foe, especially when the fish oil comes from food sources rather than supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids in balance
What is special about fish oil? It’s loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. These must come from food, as our body cannot produce them.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardine are rich in these omega-3 fatty acids. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert into DHA and EPA. Good sources for this are flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain function, normal growth and development, and inflammation. Deficiencies have been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, some cancers, mood disorders, arthritis, and more. However, this does not mean that taking high doses will lead to better health and disease prevention.
Fish oil supplements have been advertised as a simple way to protect the heart, reduce inflammation, improve mental health, and extend life. Such claims are one reason Americans spend more than $ 1 billion annually on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies add it to milk, yogurt, granola, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
However, the evidence of heart health improvement is mixed. In November 2018, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements did nothing to reduce heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from heart disease in middle-aged men and women with no known risk factors for the heart. Previous research, published in the same journal in 2013, also reported no benefit in people with risk factors for heart disease.
However, when examining subgroups of people who do not eat fish, the results suggested that they could reduce their cardiovascular risk by taking a fish oil supplement.
All over the map there is evidence of a link between fish oil and cancer. Most research, including the 2018 study cited above, did not show a reduced risk of cancer. However, some previous research suggested that diets high in oily fish or fish oil supplements might reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
Take away message
How food and its molecular components affect the body is largely a mystery. That makes the use of dietary supplements questionable for anything other than treating a deficiency.
Despite this one study, you should consider fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely positively say that the benefits of eating seafood come solely from omega-3 fats, then losing weight on fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But more than likely you will need the full orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supportive molecules, rather than the solitary notes of EPA and DHA.
The same goes for other foods. Ingesting a handful of nutritional supplements is not a substitute for an abundance of nutrients that you get from eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
What Should You Do If You Are Currently Using Fish Oil? If your doctor has prescribed them – it’s a legal and effective treatment for people with high blood triglyceride levels – follow their instructions until you can have a conversation about fish oil.
If you are taking them alone because you believe they are good for you, it is time to reconsider that strategy. If you’re not eating fish or other seafood, you can benefit from a fish oil supplement. You can also get omega-3 fatty acids from ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil and soybean oil. One to two servings a day can help you avoid an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.
Following the simple advice of food writer Michael Pollan on choosing a diet might be the best way to go: “Eat. Not too much. Mainly plants. “