Fish oil pills have clear benefits; however, if you’re a vegetarian, you may prefer to take oil capsules made from algae, the small organisms that are normally eaten by marine life and passed up the food chain. Although algal oil hasn’t been studied to the same extent that fish oil has, it does have an environmental advantage over the fish product. “Research shows that fish populations are declining. Growing algae may be more sustainable,” says Chilton.
Any omega-3 supplement you purchase needs to contain both EPA and DHA with a combined amount of at least 650 milligrams, so check the nutrition label. Some studies have found that a 60-to-40 split between EPA and DHA is effective; others support a 40-to-60 balance. But, says Tribole, “the ratio of one to the other doesn’t matter so much. What’s important is getting both omega-3s.”
Any Downside to Supplements?
Fish oil capsules can sometimes cause gas, bloating and fishy burps. You can reduce these problems by keeping the capsules in the fridge or by taking them with meals or at bedtime. Or you can avoid gut issues by swallowing enteric-coated capsules, which dissolve after they’ve passed through the stomach, releasing the contents farther down the digestive tract.
There are concerns that contaminants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have accumulated in fish and thus fish oil. But many researchers feel that these fears are overblown. For instance, more than 90 percent of the PCBs in the U.S. food supply come from nonseafood sources like meat, dairy products, eggs and vegetables, according to a Harvard report. “It would be really tragic if some people missed the benefits of fish intake because of the potential low risk of toxins,” says Chilton.
Algal and fish oil supplements generally contain less mercury than fish do because fish oil comes from the animal’s fat stores while this toxin tends to accumulate in the muscles. And there’s no place for it to get deposited in algae.
Just to be on the safe side, many manufacturers distill fish oil before bottling it to remove any traces of mercury or other contaminants. (To be sure, look for the words distilled, purified or metal free on the label.) And a study by Consumer Reports concluded that the fish oil brands tested were clear of pollutants. Thus these supplements appear to be an incredibly simple way to help protect yourself from heart disease and maybe even slow down the clock.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of More.