Omega-3 supplements have long been recommended for improving heart health — but new research suggests they don’t live up to that claim.
There’s no denying that fish is a boon for our health. The Mediterranean diet, which favours fish and legumes over red meat, is associated with improved longevity and vitality, and consistent research has shown people who eat more than two serves of fish a week have a reduced risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and childhood asthma.
If you have heart disease or at high risk of developing it, then the Heart Foundation used to recommend adding omega-3 supplements to your diet as well.
But they’ve since changed their tune and do not advise routine supplementation, a position backed by the release of a new University of Oxford review of 10 studies involving almost 80,000 people that found no benefit in taking marine-derived omega-3 supplements for people at high risk of heart disease.
“I find this evidence not too surprising,” says Craig Anderson, University of Sydney Professor of Stroke Medicine and Clinical Neuroscience.
“One to three tablets of fish oils has no effect on lipid levels, coagulation or platelet function, and the fish oil loses potency through natural oxygenation within a few months after opening the cap – hence, fish oil smell.”
But not all researchers believe omega-3 supplements need to be turfed immediately.
Professor Barbara Meyer, Director of the University of Wollongong’s Lipid Research Centre, says most of the studies did not use a potent enough dose of omega-3 supplements.
“The dose of omega-3, DHA [docosahexaenoic acid], is too low – hence the lack of benefit seen for heart health in the recent [study review],” she says.
“Only two studies used the correct dose of omega-3, particularly 0.5g of DHA per day … and these two trials are in favour of omega-3 having benefit for coronary heart disease death.”
So what to do?
Advanced accredited practising dietitian Melanie McGrice says you would be better off putting your energy into eating fish, rather than swallowing the goods in pill form.
“My advice would be to have fish — but if you can’t have it because you have an allergy or can’t tolerate it, then some type of omega-3 supplement is going to be better than having nothing,” she tells Coach.
And it’s important to note not all omega-3 supplements are created equal.
“They are often made from different sources and have different amounts of omega-3s in them,” McGrice says.
“Usually the cheaper supplements require you to take a lot more to get the same high dose of long-chain omega-3 that we’re actually after.”
In fact, McGrice says the most potent form of omega-3 supplements are made from algae, not fish.
“Fish are so rich in omega-3 because they eat the algae that contains the omega-3,” she says.
“So you can actually get supplements that come straight from the algae.”
If you’re keen on supplementing, McGrice suggests checking the quantities of DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
“You want to add these two figures up to find capsules that have the highest amount of DHA and EPA,” she says.
McGrice also suggests couples trying to conceive, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers stay conscious of their omega-3 intake.
“Omega-3 is beneficial for reducing inflammation and optimising fertility when you are trying to conceive, and then for your baby’s brain and eyesight,” she says.
“It can also be beneficial for arthritis and mental health.”
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