When you visit the supplement section of your grocery store, pharmacy or health food store, you’ll likely be faced with an overwhelming selection of fish oil supplements and other omega-3 supplements. The omega-3 supplement market is expected to reach 4 billion USD in 2018, but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding who needs to take fish oil supplements. I’m here to bust some common myths about these popular supplements and give you the facts so you can make an informed decision next time you peruse the supplement aisle.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by GOED. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
Fish Oil Supplements: Common Myths
1. All omega-3s are the same
There are 3 types of omega-3s – EPA, DHA, and ALA – and they’re not all the same!
EPA and DHA are the types found in marine foods like fatty fish, so they’re also the type of omega-3s found in fish oil supplements. These long-chain omega-3s are shown to have benefits for the health of your brain, heart and eyes.
ALA is found in plant-based foods like walnuts and flaxseeds. It serves as an energy source and a building block for EPA and DHA, though our bodies aren’t very efficient at converting ALA to EPA or DHA. Some studies put that number at less than 1%!
There is some evidence that ALA is helpful for lowering inflammation and may have some heart health benefits, but the research is still emerging. That’s why it’s best to get EPA and DHA directly from fatty fish or fish oil supplements.
2. Taking too many fish oil supplements causes bleeding
The idea that fish oil supplementation causes bleeding has been around since the early 1970s, making fish oil supplementation a concern for patients about to undergo surgery. Some of the heart health benefit are caused by the anti-clotting effects of omega-3s which help to lower the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
A recent review of the research found concerns about being on fish oils before surgery are unfounded for most people. Several studies found that fish oil supplementation did lead to slower blood clotting, meaning more time was needed to stop bleeding, but supplementation didn’t result in more blood lost during surgery. The reviewers concluded that there’s no need to stop fish oil supplementation before surgery.
If you’re on blood thinning medication and you want to start taking fish oil supplements, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first. Taking doses of EPA and DHA above 3000 mg a day is something that should be discussed with your doctor. I recommend talking to your doctor before starting most supplements to be on the safe side.
3. Fish oil supplements taste fishy and give you fishy burps
The fish oil in supplements is refined and distilled to remove fishy odors and taste, so as long as you have fresh fish oil supplements, you shouldn’t experience any fishiness. Keep an eye on your expiration dates on fish oil supplements. You can also read reviews to find out which brands are odorless and tasteless according to other people who have tried them.
Many fish oil supplement brands don’t have a fishy taste or cause fishy burps. It may also be helpful to take your fish oil supplements with a meal to boost digestion. Added bonus: this also boosts absorption, so it’s a win-win!
4. Only people with heart disease need to take omega-3 supplements
Omega-3s can help maintain healthy blood pressure and triglyceride levels and improve blood vessel function. These benefits are all especially important for people with heart disease, but that doesn’t mean that everyone wouldn’t benefit from boosting their heart health. The key here is prevention. Research has shown that getting enough DHA and EPA can prevent the development of heart disease and related health issues, so it’s important to start paying attention to omega-3s before any heart health issues develop!
If you don’t have heart disease and would like to do your best to prevent it, health professionals recommend getting 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease and want to slow the progression, that recommendation increases to 700-1000 mg per day.
EPA and DHA are also beneficial for eye health and brain health. DHA is one of the main structural fats in the retinas of your eyes. It’s important for babies’ visual development as well.
5. Vegetarians have no options for omega-3 supplements
As I mentioned above, most plant-based sources of omega-3s are rich in ALA, which doesn’t have as much evidence for its health benefits as EPA and DHA do. However, that doesn’t mean that vegetarians are out of luck! Algae oil supplements are widely available as a plant-based source of DHA and EPA.
Who should take fish oil supplements?
My approach to getting enough omega-3s is the same as my approach to getting enough of just about any nutrient: food first. If you include seafood in your diet and enjoy eating fish, start there to get the EPA and DHA you need. Wild salmon and mackerel have upwards of 1,500 mg of omega-3s per 3.5 ounce serving. Eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week covers you for your recommended daily EPA and DHA.
If you don’t eat fish or don’t eat it consistently enough to rely on it as your main source of EPA and DHA, look into a supplement. Getting enough DHA is especially important for pregnant women, since it is essential for a baby’s brain and eye development.
If eating enough fish during pregnancy is a concern (especially with keeping mercury levels down), I’d look into a supplement. If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease or have health concerns like high triglyceride levels and want to meet the recommendation of 700-1000 mg of DHA and EPA per day, I’d add a supplement to your routine, since it could be hard to reach those levels just by eating fish.
All in all, if you can get enough omega-3s through eating fish, that’s the way to go. If you need a little extra or don’t eat fish, reach for a supplement!
What should you look for in a fish oil supplement?
EPA and DHA Facts
When choosing a fish oil supplement, there are two main things you should look for on the supplement facts label: 1) the amount of EPA and DHA per serving; and, 2) the serving size.
Even if you pick up a container of supplements that reads “1,000 mg fish oil per pill,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA! When you turn to the supplement facts label, you might find that of those 1,000 mg of fish oil, each pill only supplies 100 mg of EPA and DHA – the rest could be other unsaturated fatty acids.
You’d need to take lots of those supplements in order to achieve your daily EPA and DHA goal, which could end up costing you more in the long run than a supplement with a higher concentration of long-chain omega-3s.
That’s where checking the serving size is important, too. If you’re getting 100 mg of EPA and DHA out of three pills, you’d have to take a dozen before you reached 400 mg – and no one wants to take a dozen pills every day!
Look for fish oil supplements that have at least 200-300 mg combined EPA and DHA per pill, so that you don’t end up having to take dozens of pills to reach your goal.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a brand with the dosage you’re looking for, turn your attention to the freshness of the supplement. The best way to determine the shelf life of a fish oil supplement is to check the Peroxide Value listed on the bottle.
The Peroxide Value essentially measures how much oxidation has happened during the processing of the fish oil – so the lower, the better. Look for fish oil supplements with a peroxide value under 5 meq/keg.
How much fish oil should you take?
Now that you know that it’s important to check how much EPA and DHA is actually present in fish oil supplements, how do you determine the number you should set as your goal?
The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) has some recommendations to help. GOED recommends consuming 500 mg per day for healthy adults, 700-1000 mg per day for pregnant or lactating women or those who have been diagnosed with heart disease, and more than 1000 mg per day for adults with additional health concerns like high blood pressure or high triglycerides, in order to prevent the development of heart disease.
The FDA recommends keeping EPA and DHA supplementation under 3 grams (3000 mg) per day.
Do you take fish oil supplements? I’d love to hear what you think of them!