Fish oil supplements – Do we need them?

Surely you’ve come across fish oil supplements. Are you taking them?

If so, do you know why you’re taking them? Like most supplementations, individuals tend to self-prescribe using Dr. Google, advice from friends or colleagues or even after reading recommendations in the multitude of ‘health’ articles out there. Read on to find out exactly what fish oil supplements are, whether or not you should be taking them and what to look for when purchasing a product.

What is fish oil?

Fish oil is the oil extracted from the flesh and skin of oily fish including anchovies, sardines, salmon, tuna, cod (for liver oils) and herring. The usually gelatinised capsules are basically a power pack for omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that are the body cannot synthesis on its own and therefore must be obtained from the diet. EPA and DHA are two major long chain omega-3 fatty acids and have vital roles in supporting heart health (by improving cholesterol levels), eye maintenance, supporting brain health and cognitive function (which is especially important during pregnancy with the developing fetus) and can help reduce inflammation in conditions such as arthritis.

How much fish oil do you need?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends 2-3 servings of oily fish per week (1 serving = 100 g cooked fish) in order to  achieve the recommended daily intake (RDI) for omega-3 fats for general health. The Heart Foundation, however, recommends consuming 250 – 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily in order to assist with heart health specifically. Pregnant and lactating women also have an increased EPA and DHA requirement compared to the average adult female, for brain and cognitive development of the growing fetus.

And the required EPA and DHA dosage for assisting in the management of inflammatory conditions is also higher than for general health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, the majority of Australians are not meeting these requirements from diet alone.

Fish oil supplements can therefore help to fill the gap between the recommended intake and the amount of combined EPA and DHA an individual is able to achieve through diet alone.

It is also worth noting that a standard 1000mg fish oil capsule only contains 300mg of combined EPA and DHA (the specific omega 3 fats that are responsible for the health benefits of fish oil)High strength liquid fish oils are also available, requiring a smaller dosage to obtain the required level of combined EPA and DHA.

It is also important to store the fish oil correctly in a cool dark place and consume before the use-by date to prevent it going rancid from oxidation (exposure to oxygen and light).

What’s wrong with having too much fish oil?

Those taking certain blood thinning medications need to be careful with high dosages of fish oil supplements as omega 3 fats also exert a blood-thinning effect in the body.  Most surgeons will also recommend that anyone undergoing planned surgery cease the use of all fish oil supplements at least a week or two prior to surgery to prevent complications associated with bleeding. If you are consuming a healthy balanced diet including all the five core food groups and are including 2-3 servings of oily fish per week, then fish oil supplementation should not be necessary unless you have a specific health concern requiring additional EPA and DHA. For further guidance, consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can recommend the correct fish oil supplement regime to meet your specific needs and goals.