If you’re an individual who does not like fish but is looking to still reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, then this article is for you! We know that omega-3 fatty acids are widely studied and promoted for enhancing different mental and physical aspects of health. But if you don’t enjoy eating fish, then you’re most likely going to need to resort to fish oil supplements to reap those benefits. Many of our clients are in this boat and have commonly asked us if there are any benefits to consuming fish as opposed to taking the supplements. Our Chief Science Officer, Natalie Adair Suazo, is here to answer any and all of your questions on this topic!
First, it’s important that we talk about what omega-3 fatty acids are and why it’s recommended we include them into our diet. Omega-3 fatted acids are polyunsaturated fats vital in maintaining overall health and well-being. Numerous studies have investigated the health benefits; for example, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inflammation, lower triglycerides, and improve blood pressure, all of which can lower the risk of heart disease (Mozaffarian & Wu, 2011). Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function and development and have been demonstrated to improve cognitive function and memory in children and adults (Tan et al., 2012). Also, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce and regulate inflammation. This process can benefit many processes and conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease (Proudman et al., 2008). According to Gombart, Pierre, and Maggini (2020), Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support the immune system and may help reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases. Further, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for eye health and have been shown to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness (SanGiovanni et al., 2007). Overall, it is well established in the scientific literature that consuming omega-3 fatty acids as part of a balanced diet is vital for maintaining optimal health and preventing chronic disease.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids that are used in human metabolism. They are; Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), α-linolenic acid (ALA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are essential for human health, meaning the body cannot produce them independently and they must be obtained from the diet. EPA and DHA are recognized as crucial constituents of cell membranes. They are in numerous cell types, such as immune cells, blood cells, cardiac tissue, skeletal muscle, brain cells, eye tissue, and other nervous system tissues (Harris & Von Schacky, 2009). This broad distribution of EPA and DHA has led to research investigating their effects on various topics, including inflammation, immunity, body composition, cognition, mental health, muscle protein balance, recovery, and neuromuscular function. ALA is found in plant-based sources such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. However, the body is less efficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA than obtaining them directly from fish or fish oil supplements (Galland, 2010). Therefore, it is recommended to consume sources of EPA and DHA directly from the diet (like fish) or through supplements (such as fish oil).
Without regular consumption of fish and fish-based products, we will not meet the recommended amount of EPA and DHA, which varies depending on age, sex, and health status. Most health organizations and experts recommend consuming at least 250-500 mg or around 0.3-0.5g/day of combined EPA and DHA intake for general health maintenance (Brenna, 2009). Without supplementation, consuming fatty fish at least a few times a week will likely help one meet this general recommended intake.
However, several meta-analyses and position statements have concluded that a higher daily intake of 1-3g of combined EPA and DHA is recommended for maintaining good health (Alexander, 2017). This dosage is quite effective for most objectives and is still within the range deemed safe by even the most cautious guidelines for a healthy adult. This may require 3-6 oz of actual oily fish daily to reach these levels. Moreover, higher amounts may be recommended for individuals with specific health concerns. For example, individuals with high triglycerides or other heart-related risk factors may benefit from consuming 2-4 grams of EPA and DHA per day under the guidance of a healthcare professional. The length of time for supplementation is significant because it can take several weeks for omega-3 fatty acids to be thoroughly integrated into the muscles and other tissues of concern.
EPA and DHA are primarily found in oily fish, including salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, tuna, sardines, and anchovies (American Heart Association, 2018). There are benefits of consuming fish sources versus relying on fish oil supplementation. Eating fish is an excellent way to get protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients, including vitamins D and B2, zinc, copper, calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Fish also contains selenium, which is an essential mineral that supports thyroid function and helps protect cells from damage. Ultimately, Many things in fatty fish can support other health markers and processes, including anti-inflammatory markers, and make protein turnover much more efficient. Additionally, fish is a low-fat source of protein, making it an excellent choice for people looking to reduce their saturated fat intake.
Fish Oil Supplements:
Fish oil is a concentrated source of omega-3 fatty acids and is an easy way to get a dose of these important fatty acids, especially for people who do not eat fish regularly. Sometimes fish consumption is not feasible (dislikes of taste, certain costs, perhaps a part of the plant-based movement, limited access), and fish oil supplementation is a reasonable substitution. While consuming fish food sources may be considered the gold standard; if necessary, we know that fish oil has shown positive results on desirable health outcomes in the literature. According to studies, supplementing can improve heart health, reduce inflammation, enhance subjective recovery, assist with cognition, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, boost mood, and decrease the risk of heart attack, among many other benefits (Calder, 2019).
Although a controversial topic, EPA and DHA from fish oil supplements are well-absorbed by the body. Studies have shown that the absorption of EPA and DHA from fish oil supplements is comparable to that from consuming whole fish (Dyerberg, 2004). Factors that may affect the absorption of EPA and DHA include the presence of other nutrients or food components, individual differences in digestion and absorption, and the timing and frequency of consumption.
Overall, when consumed in recommended amounts, EPA and DHA from fish oil supplements can provide comparable health benefits, including improved cholesterol. When choosing a fish oil supplement, ensure it contains enough EPA and DHA, which usually requires 3-4 fish oil pills (depending on serving size). The serving size may feel like a large quantity, requiring frequent replenishment purchases. We should also consider that supplementation will only provide omega 3, not the added benefits from fish food sources (zinc, selenium, copper, b vitamins).
Individuals who choose to obtain nutrients from a high-fish diet should exercise caution. Although certain types of fish may contain elevated levels of mercury and other harmful environmental toxins, reputable fish oil supplements generally undergo extensive processing that results in low contaminants. Regardless of whether to consume fish or take supplements, it is advisable to opt for fish species that are not predators or bottom-dwellers, as these are more likely to accumulate toxins. Sharks, swordfish, king mackerel, bigeye tuna, and marlin are examples of fish that may contain higher levels of mercury. Conversely, sardines and trout typically contain lower levels of mercury.
Alexander, D. D., Miller, P. E., Van Elswyk, M. E., & Kuratko, C. N. (2017). A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 92(1), 15-29. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.10.018
American Heart Association. (2018). Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/fish-and-omega-3-fatty-acids
Brenna, J. T., Salem Jr, N., Sinclair, A. J., & Cunnane, S. C. (2009). Alpha-linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 80(2-3), 85-91.
Calder, P. C., Carr, A. C., Gombart, A. F., & Eggersdorfer, M. (2019). Optimal nutritional status for a well-functioning immune system is an important factor to protect against viral infections. Nutrients, 11(4), 1-23. doi: 10.3390/nu11040843.
Dyerberg, J., & Madsen, P. (2004). Comparison of the bioavailability of omega-3 fatty acids from fish vs. fish oil supplement. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104(6), 965-966. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2004.03.033
Galland, L. (2010). Diet and inflammation. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25(6), 634-640.
Gombart, A. F., Pierre, A., & Maggini, S. (2020). A review of micronutrients and the immune system-working in harmony to reduce the risk of infection. Nutrients, 12(1), 236. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010236
Harris, W. S., & Von Schacky, C. (2009). Omega-3 fatty acids: An essential contribution. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, 54(5), 342-349
Mozaffarian, D., & Wu, J. H. (2011). Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: Effects on risk factors, molecular pathways, and clinical events. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93(6), 200-207. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.006978
Proudman, S. M., James, M. J., Spargo, L. D., Metcalf, R. G., Sullivan, T. R., Rischmueller, M., Flabouris, K., Wechalekar, M. D., Lee, A. T., Cleland, L. G., & Hall, S. (2008). Fish oil in recent onset rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized, double-blind controlled trial within algorithm-based drug use. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 58(10), 265-271. https://doi.org/10.1002/art.23338
SanGiovanni, J. P., Chew, E. Y., Clemons, T. E., Ferris, F. L., III, Gensler, G., Lindblad, A. S., Milton, R. C., Seddon, J. M., Sperduto, R. D., & The Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. (2007). The relationship of dietary omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid intake with incident age-related macular degeneration: AREDS report no. 23. Archives of Ophthalmology, 125(5), 671-679. https://doi.org/10.1001/archopht.125.5.671
Tan, Z. S., Harris, W. S., Beiser, A. S., Au, R., Himali, J. J., Debette, S., Pikula, A., Decarli, C., Wolf, P. A., Vasan, R. S., Robins, S. J., Seshadri, S., & The Framingham Heart Study. (2012). Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology, 78(9), 658-664. https://doi.org/10.1212/wnl.0b013e318249f6a9