Fish oil supplements are often touted in the athletic community as a performance enhancer and cure-all. The omega-3 fatty acids they contain have been shown to help reduce inflammation, and improve lung function, immune function, and body composition. But whether or not you need to be getting omega-3s through supplements remains the subject of debate.
Until recently, fish oil supplements were thought to improve heart health. But a new, highly publicized study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that taking omega-3 supplements, which typically contain two types of omega-3s called EPA and DHA, does not lower the risk of cardiac death. So it’s possible that popping those fishy pills won’t protect your cardiovascular system as much as was once thought.
Getting omega-3s naturally through your diet, however, has been linked to a lower risk of heart failure because omega-3-rich foods, unlike many supplements, contain ALA and DPA, other forms of omega-3 fatty acids that researchers found are associated with a lower risk of heart failure. (EPA and DHA were not.) The heart-health benefits, researchers found, came from eating more than one serving of fish once a month. The American Heart Association recommends eating a 3.5-ounce serving of fish at least twice a week.
The American Dietitic Association also recommends getting fatty acids through food, pointing out that one eight-ounce serving of cooked fish per week provides about 500 milligrams per day of omega-3s. In the studies showing improved lung function and body composition, however, study participants were taking up to five times that amount of EPA and DHA when researchers observed the beneficial effects of fish oil supplementation.
So where does that leave you? The University of Maryland Medical Center says not to take more than three grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids without consulting your doctor first, as fish oil may thin the blood like aspirin does, and can interfere with some medications.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Omega-3 fatty acids, in all forms, can help athletes in a variety of ways from protecting the heart to helping improve body composition. If you don’t feel you’re getting enough through your diet, which is the ideal method, supplementation is an option. But don’t start taking more than three grams of omega-3s per day without consulting your doctor first.