Per Harvard Medicine, no nutritional supplement has earned as much attention — and has created as much confusion — as fish 🐟 oil. Some research says taking a daily fish oil supplement can reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes, while other studies say the evidence remains thin.
"Fish oil is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, essential nutrients that the body cannot make on its own," says Dr. Howard LeWine, assistant professor of Harvard Medicine.
What are omega-3s?
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are found naturally in fatty fish 🐟 such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. They are also offered as over-the-counter supplements. Nuts, seeds, and some beans are rich in ALA, which the body converts to DHA and EPA.
Although omega-3s are associated with many health benefits, like better brain function and less inflammation, they're most often linked with better heart health.
Studies have shown that people who regularly eat fish, especially as part of a Mediterranean diet, have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke compared with those who don't.
However, the science is not clear about the specific influence omega-3s have on heart health improvement or how they protect against heart disease. "Omega-3s are not a type of superfood when it comes to heart health," says Dr. LeWine. "The consensus is that omega-3s should be part of an all-around heart-healthy diet, but exactly how they help, and how much you need, is still up for debate."
Should you ever take omega-3 supplements?
The exception to the "food instead of supplements" advice is if you have trouble eating enough fish because of personal taste, dietary restrictions, or safety concerns. In this case, taking a daily omega-3 capsule may be a good idea. If you do opt for a supplement, look for a seal of approval, such as a verification symbol from the USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia).
"Nutritional supplements are regulated by the FDA like food, primarily for safety," says Dr. LeWine. "But they do not get the same level of scrutiny as medications in terms of purity and effectiveness." In fact, many omega-3 products don't even contain the amounts of DHA and EPA advertised on their labels.
Proper dosage is crucial, as getting too much omega-3 may increase bleeding risk, particularly in people who take anti-clotting medications, including warfarin (Coumadin) and low-dose aspirin.
The bottom line is that omega-3s from fatty fish 🐟 and plant foods should be part of your heart-healthy diet. Food is always the best source. But if you are concerned that you don't get enough from your diet, supplementation maybe another option.