Confused if you should be taking a fish oil supplement? That’s not surprising. Sometimes headlines say the omega-3 fatty acids in them can lower heart risks. Others say the opposite.
But the data in favor of fish oil has been growing. Two recent studies show a strong benefit – especially if you don’t like or can’t eat fish itself.
The first study was presented at the North American Menopause Society Annual Meeting in Chicago in September. In it, nearly 26,000 people were treated with fish oil or took a fake fish oil capsule.
After five years, there were much fewer heart attacks in people getting the fish oil supplement than in those who didn’t. And those who didn’t eat at least 1½ servings of fish a week got the biggest heart boost. That means, if you don’t eat fish, you’re a great candidate for fish oil! African Americans got the biggest benefit of all.
The second study is a meta-analysis, which combines the findings of 13 clinical trials. It’s some of the strongest evidence so far that omega-3 supplements can help reduce heart attack and stroke risk.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and included data on more than 127,000 people. All of the people in the studies were taking at least 840 mg. of fish oil a day for at least two years. The favorable benefits appear to be related to higher dosing over longer periods of time than many of the earlier studies.
The result: Taking higher dose omega-3 supplements was linked to a lower risk of heart attacks, total heart disease, and heart disease deaths. Those who had the most fish oil had fewer heart problems.
The study authors believe taking fish oil may be the right move for many people at risk for heart problems. But it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start something new for your health.
To get the benefits of fish oil, check the ingredients on the label and make sure the supplement you take has high amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fats – called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenic acid). Look for a supplement that contains at least 800 mg. of these fats combined. One major study that the meta-analysis looked at, called REDUCE-IT, found that adding a large dose of EPA only to a statin greatly reduced the risk of future heart attack and stroke by about 25% in people with diabetes or heart disease. It appears that using a higher dose of fish oil over a longer period of time is necessary to get the greatest benefit.
Fish oil capsules can sometimes cause gas, bloating, or fishy burps. Taking them with food helps reduce these possible effects. Or choose enteric-coated capsules, which release the oil way down the digestive tract.
If you are concerned about contaminants like mercury in fish oil capsules, look for words like “distilled,” “purified,” “metal-free” or the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) symbol on the label.
You still need to eat well, though. As a rule, fill up your plate with vegetables, fruits, lean protein (poultry and fish), whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Limit sugar, saturated fat and processed foods. And switch to canola and olive oils for cooking.
You’ll get even more mileage out of your heart if you exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and try to lower your stress. There’s no substitute for a heart-friendly lifestyle, no matter how good a fish oil product is!