By April Irvine
Omega 3’s is getting more publicity than any other type of fat and you’re very likely to have seen advertisements about this. You may have seen milk, cereals, or eggs fortified with omega 3’s or how fish oil supplements have been promoted as an easy way to protect the heart or reduce inflammation. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, fish oil products generated more than 1.2 billion in sales last year.
What are omega 3’s and why should I include them?
Omega 3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (healthy fats) important for many functions in the body. One special aspect of omega 3’s is their chemical structure. They contain what are called “double bonds”—special connections that define how our body uses them for function. But it is the position of the double bonds in omega-3’s that makes a remarkable difference in biological function. Omega 3’s are used in gene expression, have anti-inflammatory properties, provide structure to red blood cells, and play a crucial role in brain function.
Food sources of omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, are found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and trout, and shellfish, such as crab, mussels, and oysters. A different type of omega-3, called ALA, are found in plant sources of food such as canola, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soy oils. All omega 3’s fatty acids are essential nutrients for health, this means that our bodies cannot make these nutrients, we must eat them!
What the science says
Cardiovascular Disease: Evidence suggests that seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids should be included in a heart-healthy diet. There is moderate amount of evidence of people who eat seafood at least once a week are less likely to die of heart disease than those who never eat seafood. The Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommends 8 or more ounces of a variety of seafood per week for adults because it provides a range of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. (Smaller amounts are recommended for young children).
Omega-3’s in supplement form have not been shown to protect against heart disease. In 2012, two groups of scientists conducted meta-analyses evaluating the effects of supplements rich in EPA and DHA such as fish oil, on heart disease risk. Neither meta-analysis found convincing evidence of a protective effect. There are several reasons why these supplements may not help to prevent heart disease even though a diet rich in seafood may. Eating seafood a few times a week not only provides healthy fats but a host of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals; when we take a single nutrient out of the context of the food, concentrate and put it in a pill, its not quite the same thing. Also, some of the benefits of seafood may result from people eating it in place of less healthful foods. Evidence also shows that people who eat seafood have generally healthier lifestyles, and these other lifestyle characteristics may be responsible for the lower rates of heart disease.
A 2012 systematic review concluded that the types of omega-3s found in seafood and fish oil may be modestly helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In the studies included in the review, many of the participants reported that when they were taking fish oil they had briefer morning stiffness, less joint swelling and pain, and less need for anti-inflammatory drugs to control their symptoms.
The nutritional value of seafood is particularly important during early development. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume at least 8 ounces but no more than 12 ounces of seafood each week. Do not eat certain types of seafood that are high in mercury—a toxin that can harm the nervous system of a fetus or young child. For the full recommendations on seafood consumption for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, see the Dietary Guidelines or MyPlate.gov.
If You Are Considering Omega-3 Supplements
- Do not use omega-3 supplements to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a doctor about a health problem.
- Omega 3 supplements can interact with medicine that affects blood clotting.
- Fish liver oils (which are not the same as fish oils) contain vitamins A and D as well as omega-3 fatty acids; these vitamins can be toxic in high doses.
- Consult your health care provider before using omega-3 supplements. If you are allergic to fish or shellfish; or if you are considering giving a child an omega-3 supplement, it is especially important to consult your (or your child’s) health care provider.
Take home message
Consider eating fish and other seafood (if your not allergic of course). The health benefits of omega-3 dietary supplements are still unclear. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules. The same holds true of other foods. Taking a handful of supplements is no substitute for the wealth of nutrients you get from eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Next time you go grocery shopping and you decide to include fish in your grocery cart but not sure what to do with it? Try this BBQ salmon burger recipe, Pinterest also has a wealth of fish recipes to choose from!
- Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(1):136-53.
- Filion KB, El Khoury F, Bielinski M, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids in high-risk cardiovascular patients: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cardiovascular Disorders. 2010;10:24.
- Kwak SM, Myung S-K, Lee YJ, et al. Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trials. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(9):686–694.
- Rizos EC, Ntzani EE, Bika E, et al. Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events. A systematic review and meta-analysis.JAMA. 2012;308(10):1024–1033.