Are fish oil supplements as healthy as we think? And is eating fish better?


Rethinking the Health Benefits of Fish Oil Supplements vs. Consuming Fish

Omega-3 fatty acids, indispensable for our well-being, are essential components of our diet as our bodies cannot synthesize them. However, what does scientific evidence tell us about their actual advantages, and do fish oil supplements offer the same health benefits as consuming fish?

Fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has gained popularity for its potential health benefits, including enhancing heart health, safeguarding against dementia, and alleviating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But what exactly are omega-3 fats, and what does the research indicate about their contributions to our overall health? Furthermore, does eating fish provide the same advantages as omega-3 supplements?

Understanding Omega-3 Fats Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid crucial to our diet because our bodies cannot produce them naturally. There are three main types of omega-3 fats:

  1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): Found in plant-based foods like leafy greens, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
  2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Present exclusively in seafood, eggs (with higher levels in free-range eggs), and breast milk.
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Also exclusively found in seafood, eggs (again, more in free-range eggs), and breast milk.

Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in cell structure and help maintain the health of our heart, lungs, blood vessels, and immune system.

Eating Fish vs. Taking Supplements

Initial studies supporting the health benefits of omega-3 fats were based on observations of people consuming fish, rather than fish oil supplements. Are the “active ingredients” in supplements, EPA and DHA, absorbed by our bodies in the same way as those from fish?

Research involving an intervention study, where one group was given fish and another fish oil supplements, found that the levels of EPA and DHA in the body increased similarly when equivalent amounts were consumed from either source.

However, it is essential to recognize that the health benefits associated with fish consumption might be influenced by other components such as protein, vitamins A and D, iodine, and selenium, which are found in fish. Moreover, the absence of certain nutrients typically consumed from other types of meat (such as saturated fats and salt) may also contribute to these health benefits.

Benefits of Omega-3 Fats and Their Sources

Let’s explore the evidence for the impact of omega-3 fats on heart disease, arthritis, and dementia.

Heart Disease

Meta-analyses have shown that fish oil supplementation is unlikely to make a substantial difference in cardiovascular disease. Consuming fish rich in omega-3 fats is recommended for optimal heart health, with variations in omega-3 levels among different fish types. Tuna, salmon, deep-sea perch, trevally, mackerel, and snook are among the fish with higher omega-3 content. While fish oil might be beneficial for individuals with heart failure or high triglyceride levels, it is not recommended for reducing the risk of heart diseases like heart attack and stroke.


Studies indicate that fish oil supplements can be beneficial in reducing the severity and progression of rheumatoid arthritis. However, obtaining the necessary levels of EPA and DHA from fish alone can be challenging and costly. Arthritis Australia recommends a daily intake of about 2.7 grams of EPA and DHA to reduce joint inflammation, while most supplements contain around 300-400mg of omega-3 fats. This means individuals might need to consume a substantial amount of fish to meet these requirements.


Studies have found a positive correlation between increased DHA intake from the diet and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia. However, animal studies demonstrating DHA’s impact on brain function have not been conclusively replicated in humans. Some systematic reviews of human studies on omega-3 fats from supplements have yielded mixed results. The Alzheimer’s Society suggests consuming fish over taking fish oil supplements, aligning with the available evidence.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, a balanced, plant-based diet that includes fish and minimizes ultra-processed foods is the key to better health. Presently, evidence indicates that fish oil is beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis, particularly when consuming large quantities of fish is impractical. However, for heart disease and dementia, obtaining omega-3 fats from one’s diet is recommended, as plant-based sources may not be as efficient at increasing EPA and DHA levels in the body as seafood.

It is important to check the expiration date of fish oil products, as the chemical structure of EPA and DHA can degrade over time, affecting their nutritional value. Also, consult with your healthcare provider, especially if you are taking other medications, before adding fish oil supplements to your regimen.

In conclusion, the best approach for maintaining good health is to prioritize a diet rich in plant-based foods and incorporate fish while reducing consumption of highly processed foods.

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