When it comes to fish oil, experts are divided regarding the usage and safety in the general population. Research has long shown the benefits that eating fish and other seafood, but the benefit may not just lie in the type of fat found in fish, but other nutritional factors found in these foods. Fish and fish oil supplements contain specific types of omega-3 fats: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
These omega-3 fatty acids cannot be produced by the human body, which means they must be consumed through the diet. Plants and seeds, although they contain omega-3s, they do not contain the specific types of omega-3s found in fish, DHA and EPA. Plants such as spinach, spirulina, flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA has been deemed inferior to fish oil because the human body must convert ALA to DHA and EPA; the conversion every ineffective, only about 12% is converted.
There are a number of benefits to consuming an adequate amount of omega-3s; they play an important role in brain function, growth and development, and inflammation. These beneficial fats can also be anti-inflammatory, improving overall immune function. Deficiencies in omega-3s been linked to cardiovascular disease, some cancers, mood disorders, and arthritis.
It is also important that a woman consumes adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in her diet during pregnancy for proper development of the baby’s brain. Unfortunately, women have been told to avoid fish due to the threat of mercury toxicity. But, there are many types of fish that are high in omega-3s, but low in mercury that can still be safe for pregnant women. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a list of low mercury fish that are safe for pregnant women. A supplement may still be recommended for pregnant women—especially if they are not eating enough fish.
The research on fish oil has shown the greatest benefits are found with the consumption of omega-3 rich foods such as fish, walnuts, and chia. The same benefit has not been seen from supplementation alone. The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends the consumption 1-2 servings of fish (200-500 mg of DHA and EPA per serving) per week to prevent heart disease and stroke. To put this number into perspective, a 3-ounce cooked salmon fillet contains over 1,500 mg of omega-3 fats. Wild Yellowfin Tuna, on the other hand, contains less than 200 mg of omega-3s per 3-ounce serving.
There is a large consensus that consuming an adequate amount of fatty fish, nuts, and seeds is the optimal way obtain an optimal amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. The numerous benefits of omega-3s from food have been well established in the current research. But, although foods may be perfectly safe and beneficial, there is a need for continued research on the safety and efficacy of supplements. Before consuming fish oil supplements, consult your doctor and/or dietitian to determine the best option for your health.