Do you really need to be taking an Omega-3 Supplement?

Omega-3 fats are heart-healthy, polyunsaturated fats that are found in both plants and fish/seafood. Since many adults in the United States and other industrialized countries will suffer from heart disease, it is important to do what we can to reduce the risk of this common chronic disease.

Part of a heart-healthy eating plan is choosing your fats carefully. Try to consume fats mostly from plant sources (e.g. nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, and their oils) and fish/seafood that is NOT deep-fat fried. However, the omega-3 fats that come from plants are not the same as those that come from fish. Having both in your eating plan is ideal, but the most potent effect on heart disease risk comes from eating fish/seafood sources of omega-3 fats.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we eat naturally oily fish, such as salmon, trout, herring, tuna, and mackerel, twice a week. Worried about contaminants? Check out the Food & Drug Administration's "Eating Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know."

Marine cold-water fish tend to be the best sources of omega-3 fats, specifically, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These fats have been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease as well as lower the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

But if you can't or won't eat fish or seafood, should you consider taking a fish oil supplement?

Fish Oil Supplements

It is unclear if fish oil supplements can prevent heart problems in people who do not yet have heart disease - the evidence is stronger for consuming fish. So if you have a choice, eat fish rather than take a supplement.

For high blood triglycerides, 2000 - 4000 mg (about 2 - 4 grams) is the typical dose. Check with your health care provider before starting a fish oil supplement, especially if you already take prescription medication. High doses of fish oil (e.g. 3000 mg or more) could be dangerous in combination with a blood thinner. And choose a supplement that lists the amount of DHA and EPA on its label.

To learn more about fish oil supplements and their effect on health, read Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth.

What About Flaxseed and Walnuts?

Flaxseed, walnuts, soybean oil, and canola oil are particularly high in ALA (alpha Linolenic acid), an omega-3 fat found in plants. This is also a heart-healthy fat, but it is not a good source of DHA or EPA. In infants and younger people, there is some conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA in the body, but there is very little conversion in adults. Therefore, adults should not count on flax to provide a significant source of DHA or EPA.

Vegan DHA Supplements

These supplements contain algae-based sources of DHA. It is unclear if vegetarians benefit from taking a DHA supplement given the protective effects of their diet. However, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your health care provider if you would benefit from taking a vegan DHA supplement.

Originally published on 2 November 2010
Updated: September 19, 2019

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Nutrients/Fats Nutrients/Supplements

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