Fish Oil: a Must-Have or Health Hazard?
For the last few decades, study after study has touted the health benefits of fish oil. It is now familiar enough to Americans to warrant over $1 billion of over-the-counter sales. A recent subscriber survey by ConsumerLab.com suggests it surpasses multivitamins as the most popular dietary supplement in the U.S. Whether you started taking fish oil during pregnancy, after diagnosis of a heart problem or after watching Dr. Oz tout it as one of the 5 critical vitamins a woman should take, you are not alone. Fish oil is a trendy supplement, but how beneficial is it to your health?
You just want me for my Omega-3s
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are the reason most people take fish oil. Omega-3 Fatty Acids are essential nutrients for health meaning the body does not produce them on its own. Omega-3s prevent blood clotting and has also been shown to reduce inflammation. There are three components of Omega-3’s: ALA, DHA, and EPA. ALA is found in plant sources such as raw walnuts, freshly ground flaxseed, dark green vegetables and other vegetable oils. DHA and EPA is found in fish oils such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel among others, as well as seaweed. Though in smaller amounts, EPA and DHA can also be found in organically raised free-range chicken and their eggs and grass-fed beef. All three types of Omega 3s are interrelated and one has not been shown to be more beneficial than the others. Though there is varying evidence on how efficiently the body does so, ALA from plant sources is converted into DHA and EPA as a normal bodily process.
Omega 3s are best known for their support of a healthy heart. Although a recent Harvard study finds little benefits, according to the American Heart Association, Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of — or who have — cardiovascular disease. A cardiovascular-health specialist David Siscovick, an epidemiologist at the UW adds, "When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, we know that some intake is better than none for cardiovascular health." Another health benefit found in research studies attributes fish oil supplementation to a reduction in breast cancer risk. WebMD lists possible positive effects of fish oil on high blood pressure, menstrual pain, ADHD, weight loss, depression and high cholesterol. And while DHA from fish oil supplements has increasingly shown it can decrease preterm labor, an Australian study has debunked the idea that pregnant women who take them will improve brain development in their unborn child, or stave off post-partum depression.
Eat Fish or Take Supplements?
What’s the best way to get Omega 3s in your diet? The American Heart Association says increasing omega-3 fatty acid consumption through foods is preferable. Dr. Thomas Pfeffer, a vascular surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Los Angeles and the president of the L.A. chapter of the American Heart Assn says, “It's always better to get nutrients from whole foods.” However, FDA guidelines suggest avoiding certain fish, such as mackerel, swordfish or tilefish, because of high mercury levels. But is the issue of contamination remedied by taking supplements? Not so much. While fish sold to consumers is regulated by the FDA, neither the US Food and Drug Administration, nor the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the fish oil supplement industry. You can however use the Environmental Defense Fund’s comparative list of 75 companies’ fish oil supplements to find the best supplement for you.
Are you a fish eater, a fish oil pill popper or neither?
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