Fish Oil vs. Eating Fish: Are All Omega-3s Created Equal?

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omega 3 eating fish supplements

The convenience of a pill can’t be beat. At least, that’s how it must seem to many Americans. Instead of eating the recommended two servings of fish per week, many people get their Omega-3s by taking a fish oil supplement. But is this as effective as getting your essential fatty acids straight from the source?

What Are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids have many health-boosting benefits. They lower triglycerides, which afffect your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, curb stiffness and joint pain and may help to reduce the symptoms of ADHD and depression. Furthermore, Omega-3s help prevent heart disease, heart attacks and stroke. Research is even being done on the effectiveness of Omega-3s in lowering the risk of cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Although the human body can make most of the fats it needs from other fats or raw materials, that isn’t the case for Omega-3s; the body must get them from a direct food source or a supplement.

Does Fish Pose a Risk?

Tilapia Fish Oil Omega-3 Supplements

Fish is the best natural source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but some people are concerned about other, potentially harmful ingredients that may be in fish such as mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and environmental contaminants. However, it’s usually just large, predatory fish such as shark, swordfish or king mackerel that may contain these substances. These fish usually aren’t very common in grocery stores or on menus.

By choosing seafood such as salmon, Tilapia, shrimp and yellowfin tuna, you can receive all the health benefits of fish without having to worry about taking in harmful components like mercury. Studies have found that the benefits of eating fish far outweigh any potential risks among the general population.

Supplementing with Supplements

fish oil supplements omega3 vs fish

While taking fish oil supplements may seem easier than eating fish twice a week, they have a more limited fatty acid profile than whole fish and don’t contain selenium, which reduces mercury toxicity. While they often contain higher levels of EPA and DHA, supplements also do not contain other fats present in fish that might activate processes required to absorb these fatty acids found in Omega-3s.

Research is inconclusive about the benefits of taking Omega-3s in supplement form. A study in 2003 did find a link between these supplements and reduced risk of prostate cancer, though its results have not been replicated. A different study found that taking Omega-3 supplements did nothing to reduce one’s risk of heart attacks or strokes, while others found that taking Omega-3 supplements did not provide any significant health benefits.

Despite the fact that Omega-3s are best when sourced from food, there are times when Omega-3 supplements can be helpful or even necessary. Those who have coronary artery disease or elevated triglyceride levels may not get enough Omega-3 by their diet alone and doctors may recommend that they take Omega-3s supplements on top of eating fish twice weekly.

The Evidence Is In

Consuming Omega-3 fatty acids through fish has more health benefits than taking supplements. If you’ve been avoiding fish because you don’t like the taste, why not try some new recipes? We recommend using Tilapia—not only does it contains Omega-3s and protein, but it lacks the distinct “fishy” taste that most other seafood has. Grill, bake, cook or fry your way to a healthier you this year.

Image Credits: V.J. Matthew / Shutterstock, Tarttong / Shutterstock, Valeri Potapova / Shutterstock