In 2008, over-the-counter fish oil supplement sales in the United States nearly topped $740 million. Add to that the additional $1.8 billion spent on other omega-3 fortified foods like margarine and peanut butter and you can see that omega-3 is big business. Is this money well spent or nothing more than an oil spill.
The many omega-3 benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, improving cholesterol profiles by decreasing triglycerides and increasing protective HDL's or supporting mental health are all wonderful reasons to include omega-3 rich foods in our diet. Since these essential fatty acids are not made by the body and have been found to be so beneficial, they have become a new supplement marketing focus. According to a recent Forbes article, they are not always the best use of our money.
Here are some important things to keep in mind as you select at the supermarket or supplement aisle to be sure you are making nutrient and money wise omega-3 choices.
More than one type of omega-3's - Two kinds of omega-3 have been proven to help heart disease. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are considered to be long-chain forms of omega-3. There is also a third type of omega-3 called alpha-lineolinic acid (ALA) which is the short-chain form of omega-3. Flax, nuts, and some fortified foods contain ALA, which cardiologists do not believe provide the same heart protection benefits since it is only converted in the body to EPA in small amounts. If you are interested in omega-3's for the heart benefit, make sure it is from an EPA or DHA sources instead of an ALA source. If you are looking to improve blood pressure, DHA may be most beneficial.
Not all supplements are created equal – Salmon is the classic omega-3 fatty acid rich fish that provide a balance of EPA and DHA oils. Other oily fish such as herring, sea bass, and mackerel are also good sources as well. Be sure you are aware of the fish oil source for the supplement you select. Try to balance your intake with the omega-3's that are missing from your diet. There are algae omega-3 supplements as well that may provide more of an ALA source like flax and nuts. It would likely be better to have a DHA or EPA supplement instead since a vegetarian diet is most likely very rich in ALA omega-3's.
Know how much you need – According to the American Heart Association, if you desire to reduce your risk of heart disease you need approximately 500 mg of omega-3's per day. This can be achieved with oily fish consumption such as salmon or shrimp twice a week balanced with plant based omega-3 sources such as flaxseed and walnuts. If your diet is low in those heart protecting and healthy sources of fatty acids, supplementation may be beneficial. It is important to evaluate your diet first before assuming that supplementation is necessary. When you do select a supplement or omega-3 enriched food, be sure you are getting DHA and EPA sources of omega-3's to be sure you are getting the most usable and protective nutrition for the money.
Do you have a diet rich in omega-3's? Do you think omega-3 rich foods or supplements are a better choice for the money?