What is Fish Oil for and Do You Really Need It?



What is fish oil for? Next to vitamin D and multivitamins, which we’ve discussed in previous articles, fish oil is one of the most popular supplements. Yet, research looking at the benefits of fish oil have been inconsistent, leading many of us to wonder whether we need it or not.


We, too, have pondered the same question – does fish oil really offer the benefits the supplement companies claim and is it safe? After all, fish oil comes from fish, and fish swim in waters where they’re exposed to pollutants and heavy metals.


If you ask a health expert about the safety of fish, they’ll likely tell you, depending upon the type of fish, that you should eat the actual fish itself no more than twice a week, and for some larger fish, only once a week or less.


Larger fish that are higher on the food chain are more likely to accumulate high levels of toxins as opposed to tiny fish like anchovies and sardines that get devoured by a large fish before they have time to build up toxins.


In this article, we hope to clarify the question of what is fish oil for as well as help you decide whether you should take it. We took it for years, but after one study linked it with prostate cancer, we discontinued it temporarily. 


That study has since been widely criticized and disputed. First, let’s look at why you might consider taking a fish oil supplement in the first place.


How Fish Oil Grew in Popularity


You might think fish oil is a relatively recent supplement phenomenon but as far back as 16th century England, fishermen used fish oil to treat a variety of health issues, including the common cold, wounds, and skin problems.


It wasn’t until the 1970s that fish oil really made inroads into the supplement market. The impetus was a study looking at why the Eskimos living in Greenland had such a low rate of heart disease despite eating a high-fat diet.


The fats in their diet, as you might expect, came from the fish they had such ready access to. Fish that live in cold, deep waters, have high levels of fatty acids called omega-3s. These long-chain omega-3s are called Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DPA).


This study opened up a whole line of research looking at the health benefits of fish oil, particularly the omega-3s, EPA and DHA. Not all fish are high in omega-3s. Here are examples of fish that are:


  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Tuna
  • Salmon (Wild Caught)
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Lake Trout
  • Whitefish
  • Black Cod


As we’ll get to later, not all of these fish are necessarily healthy to eat due to concerns about toxins. We just want to make you aware that not all fish have enough omega-3s to be significant.


What is Fish Oil For, Anyway?

The reason people are excited about fish oil and the omega-3s it contains has to do with their anti-inflammatory properties. As you know, inflammation is a driving force in a number of diseases, including heart disease, autoimmune disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancer.


By calming inflammation, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil might lower the risk for a number of health problems – all well and good, but how does this play out in real life?


Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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