Research: Eating Fish Better than Taking Omega-3 Supplements

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Dad’s pretty religious about taking his daily supplements. Me, not so much. I think part of it is that I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any major health issues during my life (knock on wood); therefore, I’ve not really had to get into the habit of reaching for the pill container. And increasingly, I’ve been trying to eat a pretty healthy diet, having experienced for myself what a different it makes in how I feel.

    It turns out that new research is suggesting that at least in one case, opting for food over a supplement may really be the best way to go. A new study out of Harvard University suggests that it may be better to eat fish instead of taking supplements of omega-3 fatty acids.

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    To conduct this study, researchers analyzed the eating habits as well as the fatty-acid blood levels of more than 20,000 male doctors who were participating in the Physicians’ Health Study, which is a longitudinal study that started in 1982. The participants were, on average, were 58 years old when their blood was drawn.

    The researchers found that eating fish regularly was linked to a lower risk of heart failure.  In fact, only four in 1,000 men who reported eating more than one serving of fish per month suffered heart failure.  In comparison, approximately seven in 1,000 men who reported that they consumed fish less than one per month did suffer heart failure. That amounts to a 30-percent higher risk of heart failure for men who didn’t consume fish than those who ate fish.

    The researchers also studied the various levels of omega-3 fatty acids – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) – in both the men’s diets and their blood streams. The researchers couldn’t identify an effect for blood levels of EPA or DHA, which are most often sold as fish oil supplements. However, they did find a link between DPA and a lower risk of heart failure. DPA is made in the body from EPA and then is converted to DHA.

    So does that mean you should throw out your fish oil pills? Not necessarily, but experts who spoke to Reuters Health suggest focusing more on eating a healthy diet. And talk to your doctor about whether you should keep taking fish oil supplements.

    So how should you incorporate fish into your diet? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish at least twice a week. That means two servings that equal 3.5 ounces of cooked fish or 3/4 cup of flaked fish. AHA recommends selecting fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

    However, you may worry about whether there could be toxins in the fish. “Some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants,” the AHA website states. “Levels of these substances are generally highest in older, larger, predatory fish and marine mammals.” The association makes three recommendations about what to eat:

    • Opting for a variety of fish will help you minimized any potential adverse effects due to toxins.
    • Children and pregnant women should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish since these fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury. In addition, these groups should eat up to 2 servings of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Also, if they get fish from local sources, they should check local advisories about the safety of the fish.
    • Men and women who are middle age and above, eating fish outweighs the risks as long as the quantity of fish consumed remains within the recommended amount.

    So with that, guess what Dad and I will be having for dinner tonight? Salmon!

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Heart Association. (2010). Fish and omega-3 fatty acids.

    MedlinePlus. (2012). Fish linked to heart failure risk, omega-3 results mixed. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Published On: October 10, 2012