Eating Fish vs. Popping Omega-3 Supplements

Whether you like fish and seafood or not, you’ve probably heard by now that various health authorities are urging Americans to eat more fish and seafood. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines, for example, suggest we consume at least 8 ounces of seafood per week (more if you’re pregnant). And the American Heart Association recommends eating fish—particularly fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring and sardines—at least twice a week. In general, we are doing better with this: in 2015 the average seafood intake was 15.5 pounds—up about a pound from the previous year. That’s a good sign that people are getting the message, though we are still falling short of recommendations.

Fatty fish like this Cashew Salmon with Apricot Couscous are in the category we should generally be eating more of.

Seafood Health Benefits

Fish and shellfish are excellent sources of protein, are low in saturated fats and contain a slew of minerals. Compared to beef and poultry, seafood provides more vitamin B12, vitamin D and of course, omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA and EPA). Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, and are associated with plenty of health benefits—and fish and shellfish are the main food sources of EPA and DHA. (ALA is another Omega-3 fatty acid that’s found in plants such as soy, walnuts, flax and canola oil.) Humans need omega-3s, but cannot produce them on our own, so it’s essential we get them from our food. I’ve covered the nutritional merits of seafood before for Guiding Stars so check it out, but aside from those, here’s a short list of health benefits:

Do omega-3 or fish oil supplements provide the same benefits as eating fish?

Well, they do provide omega-3s, but according to the National Institutes of Health, while there are moderate health benefits found with eating seafood, the health benefits of just swallowing omega-3 supplements are unclear. Overall, several meta-analyses have not found convincing evidence that omega-3s have a protective effect against heart disease or other cardiovascular-related issues. Nor do they seem to have an effect on cognitive decline or eye diseases like macular degeneration.

One thing that omega-3 supplements may help with is rheumatoid arthritis. Several studies (including a 2016 study) indicate that people who take omega-3 supplements experience less joint tenderness overall and less joint stiffness in the morning.

If you want to take omega-3 supplements because you don’t like seafood or are allergic to it, please consult with your physician. While omega-3 supplements are generally regarded as safe, you may have a condition or be taking medications that don’t mix well with them. Otherwise, catch those health benefits getting more seafood on your plate, says Jennifer McGuire, MS, RD, a dietitian with the National Fisheries Institute. “Seafood offers an abundance of nutrients we all need. Your best bet is to eat fish as a whole food—not just for its nutrients package, but because it’s a delicious, feel-good food.”