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What are the benefits of fish oil supplements?

Reviewed by our expert panel
Woman eating a fish oil capsule

Fish oil or omega-3 supplements are ranked among the top 10 supplements taken worldwide, but do we really need them? Healthy food Guide dietitians look at the health claims around fish oil supplements to see what, if any, science-backed benefits there are.

Many of us regularly purchase nutrition supplements, some of which promise the earth as you wade through mountains of colourful bottles in pharmacies or supermarket aisles. One of the most popular supplements is fish oil. For years, we’ve been told by doctors and health professionals to increase our intake of healthy omega-3 fats, but could popping fish oil pills be a big waste of money? Here’s what you need to know.

What are omega-3 fats?

Healthy omega-3 fats are an important member of the polyunsaturated fats family, which in turn are members of the bigger unsaturated fats family.

Omega-3s work to lower blood pressure and reduce blood triglyceride levels. They also support your eye and brain health, and can help prevent age-related cognitive decline.

Omega-3 fats are classified as essential, which means you must have them in your diet, as your body can’t produce them. They’re found naturally in seafood (especially oily fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel), nuts and seeds, and to a lesser extent in meat and eggs.

Fish and seafood contain two types of omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research has shown that these types of omega-3 fatty acids offer the best therapeutic benefits. The Heart Foundation recommends adults consume 250–500mg of combined EPA + DHA per day, which can be achieved by eating 2–3 servings of oily fish a week.

Plant-based omega-3s from foods like chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts and canola oil make up a slightly different category, and are called ALA.

ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is low.

All Australians should aim for 1g of plant-sourced omega-3 (ALA) each day. This equates, for example, to 30g walnuts per day — approximately a palmful.

Do fish oil supplements work?

Omega-3 supplementation is not routinely recommended for the general population — but it has its place for some:

➜ Those who have an inadequate diet

Whether you have an allergy, follow a vegetarian diet or just don’t like the taste of seafood, fish oil supplements can help you to boost your intake of marine omega-3s.

➜ People with coronary heart disease

Taking fish oil supplements doesn’t prevent heart attacks, but there may be some benefit to your health if you’ve already had one. The Heart Foundation recommends people with heart disease eat 2–3 serves (150–200g) of fish per week, and to consider omega-3 fish oil supplements as an additional therapy.

➜ Those with high triglycerides

4000–5000mg of combined EPA + DHA is recommended to help reduce blood triglyceride levels, along with a heart-healthy diet including fish and a variety of plant-based omega-3s.

➜ People who have arthritis

Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, so they can ease inflammatory arthritic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Australia recommends 2700mg of combined EPA + DHA per day — which is up to 14 standard 1000mg fish oil capsules — to reduce the inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

➜ Women who are pregnant

It is currently not standard practice to recommend use of omega-3 supplements by pregnant women, but promising research is taking place in this area. A recent review of the scientific evidence found that increasing the amount of omega-3s in a pregnant woman’s diet reduced her risk of having a premature baby.

What you need to look for in a fish oil supplement

Fish oil capsules are the most common form of omega-3 supplements, but you can also buy fish oil in liquid form by the bottle. Before you buy, check the label and look for the highest level of EPA + DHA. Note that the total amount of fish oil is not the same as the amount of EPA + DHA you’re getting per capsule – a standard 1000mg fish oil capsule contains only 300mg EPA + DHA.

Fish oil can also come with added extras, like vitamin E to reduce the rate that the oil becomes rancid, while others coat the capsules in a special film that helps it bypass the stomach without causing a fishy aftertaste or reflux. If you’re thinking of taking an omega-3 supplement, speak to your doctor first.

First published: Aug 2020

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