You've heard that fish is good for you, but can you get the same benefits from a fish oil pill?
Some studies have found that fish oil supplements are beneficial for women with high-risk pregnancies and people with heart problems. But health and nutrition experts say these supplements need to be studied further and urge consumers not to use them without a doctor's approval.
"We're just not there yet. We're still a bit anxious about recommending exposure or treatment," says Donald Mattison, M.D., the former medical director of the March of Dimes, which has sponsored studies on the role of fish oil in preventing premature births.
The American Heart Association's (AHA) new dietary guidelines recommend eating two, 3.5-ounceservings of fish every week, but the AHA says there is no compelling evidence that fish oil supplements benefit cardiovascular health.
"The best advice at the present time is to have cardiac patients talk to their doctors about fish oil supplements. For some it may be warranted but only under a doctor's approval," says Penny Kris-Etherton, a distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University and one of the authors of the AHA's dietary guidelines.
Your heart and fish oil
Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acid, a polyunsaturated fat that may reduce your risk for heart disease and heart attack. People who eat fish regularly reduce their risk for heart attack even if they already have coronary heart disease. Fish oil may also help to prevent irregular heartbeats and reduce triglycerides, a fatty substance in your blood, Kris-Etherton says.
The AHA recommends fish oil capsules only for patients with severely high triglycerides (greater than 1,000 mg/dL) who have not responded well to other treatments, such as dietary changes or medication, and are at an increased risk of inflammation of the pancreas.
However, Kris-Etherton and the heart association say fish oil pills can cause side effects, such as an upset stomach, excessive belching, increased bleeding, nosebleeds and easy bruising.
Sources of good fish "fat"
Many foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids also have high amounts of N-6 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated oil that can increase your risk of developing a heart attack by lowering the cholesterol proteins that help keep your arteries unclogged. Americans consume 17 times more N-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, but should be eating only five times as much N-6 fatty acid as omega-3 fatty acid, says Paul Addis, Ph.D., a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Baking, broiling or grilling fish avoids the use of vegetable oil, a common source of N-6 fatty acid.
If you want a healthier diet, Addis says these fish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acid:
- Black bass
- Channel catfish
- Lake herring
- Lake trout
- Tuna (packed in water)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urges consumers to contact state or local health departments for information on the safety of fish from nearby waters.