Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
If you get your omega-3 index measured, you’ll know if your current efforts are sufficient. And this knowledge is especially important given that even health-conscious people are not always self-aware. One survey found that in a group of people with omega-3 index levels in the intermediate risk range, some 30% believed they were consuming enough omega-3s (11). One registered dietitian wrote a compelling story about exactly this experience. She discovered she was in the intermediate range, in spite of her intentions to eat enough fish.
“The review provides good evidence that taking long-chain omega 3 (fish oil, EPA or DHA) supplements does not benefit heart health or reduce our risk of stroke or death from any cause. The most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega 3 fats on cardiovascular health. On the other hand, while oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.
To reap all the omega-3 benefits, it may be difficult for some people to eat the required amounts of oily fish, particularly with the well-known dangers of farmed fish, which are more readily available to most Americans. That’s why some people consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement in addition to a well-rounded diet. I’ll discuss supplements in a moment, though.
A 2014 meta-analysis of eleven trials conducted respectively on patients with a DSM-defined diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) and of eight trials with patients with depressive symptomatology but no diagnosis of MDD demonstrated significant clinical benefit of omega-3 PUFA treatment compared to placebo. The study concluded that: "The use of omega-3 PUFA is effective in patients with diagnosis of MDD and on depressive patients without diagnosis of MDD."
The studies recruited men and women, some healthy and others with existing illnesses from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Participants were randomly assigned to increase their omega 3 fats or to maintain their usual intake of fat for at least a year. Most studies investigated the impact of giving a long-chain omega 3 supplement in a capsule form and compared it to a dummy pill. Only a few assessed whole fish intake. Most ALA trials added omega 3 fats to foods such as margarine and gave these enriched foods, or naturally ALA-rich foods such as walnuts, to people in the intervention groups, and usual (non-enriched) foods to other participants.
Scientific studies have found that fish oil can help to prevent and kill various cancers, including colon, prostate and breast. (13a) Not only has research proven that it makes conventional cancer drugs more effective, but it’s also an effective stand-alone therapy in natural cancer treatment. Intravenous fish oil lipid emulsions, in particular, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which exhibit anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. (13b)
These low levels are especially bad when compared to the numbers from the Japanese population. In Japan, the average omega-3 index level is more than double that of the average American, with some surveys showing Japanese men consume over 100 g (approximately 3.5 oz) of fish every day. These radically different dietary habits help explain how even those with omega-3 indexes in the lowest 5th percentile of the Japanese population have higher omega-3 index averages than most Americans (8).
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.