Several other studies show fish oil has no effect whatsoever. Researchers from aJAMA Internal Medicine study reviewed 24 studies that were published between 2005 and 2012 and found that only two of them had a plus side to taking the supplements.
“The research is conflicting,” says Nicole Anderson Goodrich, R.D.N., founder of Anderson's Nutrition in Phoenix. That’s likely because this is all still relatively new. “We look at areas like Japan that have low instances of heart disease and we say, ‘Oh, they eat a lot of fish,’” she says. Then, researchers try to pull out the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and put them into fish oil supplements. The problem, explains Goodrich, is the Japanese people ate fish—not supplements—and apparently you can’t just interchange them and expect the same results.
“When we look at communities that actually consume food, we’re seeing the health benefits,” she says. “But when we’re breaking it down in the lab through supplementation, we’re not seeing those types of benefits coming out of it.”
So, Should You Take Them?
To make things more confusing, experts have mixed feelings on fish oil supplements; some think they’re overrated, but others recommend them. The one thing they do agree on, though: It’s best to get your omega-3s straight from the source if you can.
“It’s always better to get your nutrients from food because food is loaded with so much more than just nutrients—there are all sorts of biochemicals, macronutrients, and micronutrients,” says Kathleen Zelman, WebMD’s director of nutrition. “The best way to satisfy your omega-3 fatty acids is to eat fatty fish.”
If you’re vegan (or you just don’t like fish), you can opt for other foods that are rich in omega-3s, like walnuts, canola oil, and flaxseeds. Not into any of the above? Then fish oil supplements are a solid plan B. They’re not going to hurt you; they’re just not necessary if you’re getting your omega-3s elsewhere.
Now, About Those Fishy Side Effects...
If you decide to take them or your doctor recommends them to you, you’ll quickly realize you’re going to have to deal with fishy burps—or worse. “Somebody who has a really high dose will have an odor to them,” says Goodrich. She adds that many brands advertise “burp-less” formulas, but they generally don’t live up to those promises.
Your best bet is to stick with supplements that have a USP seal of approval on the bottle, says Zelman. And then experiment a little to see what works best for you. “Some people find that if they pop them in the freezer or if they take them at night or with food, they tolerate them better,” says Zelman.
The bottom line: Fish trumps fish oil supplements. But if you don’t eat enough of the stuff, supplements are an easy way to nab omega-3 benefits. “If you can’t get them from your diet, then supplements are the next best thing,”Kathleen Zelman