Fishy Business: What’s Really In Your Fish Oil Supplement?

Could fish oil supplements be the secret to living a long and healthy life or are their risks and side effects too serious to ignore?

November 24, 2015
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I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the universe not taking a fish oil supplement.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration; apparently only 10% of the population takes one, but I rarely go a day without someone asking me about it. It’s enough to make a girl wonder, what’s with all the fuss? Am I missing something? Are you?

Could we be adding years of blissful health to our lives by popping one simple pill every day?!

First, to be clear, we’re not going to cover all omega-3 supplements in this article. We’re really focusing on the fish oil omega-3 supplements, since omega-3’s can come from a host of different foods. In general, the omega-3’s found in fatty fish (DHA and EPA) are thought to be more efficiently used than the one found in plant-based foods (ALA), like chia and flax seeds.

THE PROS

– ConsumerLab.com released a report indicating that fish oil supplements do not pose the same risk of mercury and PCB contamination that comes with eating omega-3 rich fish, like salmon. Consumer Reports generally agreed with those findings. In theory, then, you can reap the benefits of fish without the risks.

– Fish oil supplements effectively lower triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease, obesity, and diabetes when elevated.

Regular consumption of omega-3 rich fish has been associated with a host of health benefits, but pills are much easier to swallow for most Americans than eating actual fish. Packaging the omega-3s into pill form is a way to increase consumption in a way that pleases most consumers.

– There is some evidence that fish oil supplements may have a slight benefit for a myriad of conditions beyond just cholesterol, including high blood pressure, menstrual and arthritis pain, ADHD, asthma, osteoporosis, kidney disease, bipolar disorder, and Raynaud’s syndrome. Quite the Jack-of-All-Trades!

THE CONS

– Supplements aren’t regulated, which means you don’t always get what you pay for: one analysis of over 50 top-selling fish oil supplements found significant discrepancies between what the label advertised and what was actually inside the bottles. That same analysis found measurable amounts of mercury in every single brand tested, which calls into question the findings mentioned above.

– The overwhelming majority of reviews have found that fish oil supplements do not change your risk of adverse heart events at all. What’s the point in having low cholesterol if you’re just as likely to have a heart attack?

– There’s a lot of mixed and contradictory evidence. Although one of the links above claims that the supplements may slightly benefit bipolar disorder symptoms, yet another states the condition may actually be exacerbated by the supplementation. It also points out some other side effects and concerns, including nausea, loose stools, and nosebleeds.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?

No one gets loose stools and nosebleeds from eating fish, but you might from taking fish oil supplements. I think that one sentence sums up my opinion on this topic pretty well. Flop!

Look. Nutrition is an evolving science, and the truth is, we really don’t understand all of the complexities of the human metabolism and how it responds to the things we feed it. Here’s what we do know: eating two servings of fish a week has been associated with improved health, but those benefits don’t seem to translate to the isolated supplements.

Whole foods are like bundle deals, packages of a lot of nutrients that all work together to have an effect on the body. More and more, we’re learning that isolating just one of those nutrients and putting it into pill form just doesn’t work the same way. We evolved to eat food, not pills.

I know, I know, pills are easier, less expensive, and don’t taste like, well, fish. That’s a big deal-breaker for a lot of people. It’s also hard to find quality seafood in some areas of the country, and there’s a growing concern all over about the contaminants in a lot of fish. However, eating fatty fish is just one step you can take to improve your health. If it’s too far of a reach for you right now, focus on all of the other foods and activities you can embrace that will also bring you benefits.

So now it’s broken record conclusion time: eat more fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains; squeeze in some servings of fatty fish if and when possible; get enough sleep; find ways to chill out; and work up a sweat a few times a week. If it makes you feel better and you can afford it, you can consider a low-dose fish oil supplement to be a safety net, but don’t lose sight of how all of your choices, not just this one, impact your health.

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