When it comes to fats, there’s one variety you definitely don’t want eat less of: omega-3s! These essential nutrients, found in fish, nuts, certain vegetables and flax seeds, help ward off heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and metabolism-slowing inflammation. They also keep daily bodily functions like blood clotting going strong.
Most people know about these health benefits, which is why so many who aren’t fans of omega-rich foods turn to supplements. This got us thinking: Is it better to munch on walnuts and wild salmon or is a supplement just as beneficial? To find out, we reviewed the research and checked in with Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, a registered dietitian with private practices in New York and Connecticut. Here’s what you need to know:
According to Schapiro, whole food sources of omega-3s are the way to go: “There are three types of omega-s: EPA and DHA–which are primarily found in fish–and ALA, which is found in plant sources. While you can get all three types in pill-form, I believe in eating whole foods whenever possible.” Why? “When you eat whole foods, you’re reaping the benefits of the omega-3s, while also getting an additional dose of proteins, vitamins and minerals that are also present in the foods. It’s a win-win,” she explains.
Plus, supplements like fish oil pills don’t offer up the same heart-health benefits as food-based sources of the nutrient. A 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association study of nearly 70,000 people found that omega-3 supplementation did not lower risk of cardiac death, myocardial infarction or stroke, as once previously thought. “Consuming omega-3s from foods has more protective properties, and still has proven effects on heart health,” notes Schapiro.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) agrees with Schapiro and the research findings. The organization recommends a food-based approach to omega-3 consumption, but recommend those who struggle to get enough of the nutrients from whole foods turn to supplements as a plan B.
Schapiro agrees: “Supplements make for a good insurance policy. If you don’t consume at least two weekly servings of fish or other daily sources of the nutrient like walnuts, flax seeds, grass-fed beef, tofu or Brussels sprouts, you may not be getting enough of the fatty acids and should discuss supplementation with your physician.” Schapiro adds that supplementation can have negative effects on those with fish allergies, low blood pressure, Bipolar disorder, diabetes and liver disease, so it’s especially important for those with these health concerns to check in with their doctor before popping a pill.
The bottom line: Try to consume your fatty-acids from whole foods. If you fear you aren’t getting enough of the nutrient, chat with you MD about supplementation. Although it may not be as protective as whole food sources, it’s better than falling short on the nutrient altogether.