Fish Oil Benefits: Facts And Myths Related To Heart Health

Fish oil can be found in two kinds of sources — seafood and supplements. In the news, you may have come across many headlines about it with regard to heart health. While the subject is still not adequately understood, here is what we do know about it.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which fish oil is a great source of, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart attacks. These unsaturated fatty acids may help reduce the level of triglycerides in your blood, slow down the build-up of plaque in your arteries, and more, according to Penn Medicine.

Now, if fish consumption can have such an impact, taking fish oil supplements should have a similar protective effect, right? Well, the answer is not quite straightforward.

Research on this association has, at best, offered mixed results. In a 2018 meta-analysis of ten trials, researchers concluded they were unable to find any heart health benefit in taking fish oil supplements.

To explain the disparity, experts suggest that our body finds it easier to absorb nutrients from food as opposed to a pill.

"Food, such as salmon, offers more benefits than just omega-3s. It has protein, B vitamins, potassium, and more," Sarah Koszyk, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Prevention. "When taking a supplement, a person is only getting that specific nutrient. For this reason, the body processes supplements differently — and often, less effectively — than real food."

However, in the same year, a trial of a fish oil supplement found a 25 percent drop in the risk of heart attacks and other cardiac events. There are two possible explanations for the result.

First, the trial focused on a very specific group of high-risk patients who were also on statins. So this benefit may not apply to the general population based on these results alone. Secondly, the trial did not use a regular supplement but a prescription pill known as Vascepa which contains highly purified EPA. 

One of the issues with over-the-counter supplements is that they do not require FDA approval. This means there is "less guarantee of purity and precise dosing," as noted by the Daily Beast.

The bottom line is that fish oil supplements have shown potential in improving heart health, but only for a specific group. If your doctor has prescribed them for you, continue taking them as directed. But if you have been taking them without being advised to, the golden pills may simply be a waste of money. Instead, you should aim to get your omega-3s from food sources like salmon, mackerel, sardines, chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and more.

"Most of the evidence for the benefits of omega-3s come from studies of fish consumption," Marion Nestle, Ph.D., from New York University, told SELF, recommending healthful eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet instead of supplements.