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Fish oil supplements don’t work

I don’t generally promote supplements. Most of them play to specific, isolated points of medical research to serve as a magic pill. But they often contain artificial ingredients that the body cannot absorb, and thus have no benefit. Those that can be absorbed still don’t necessarily provide the stated benefit. One remarkable example of this is fish oil.

Globally, many institutions promote fish oil as a substance that prevents heart disease. This, like many other fitness and wellness myths, really does need to be reconsidered. This is especially true for fish and krill oil. Harvesting them contributes to the overfishing that is depleting the world’s stock of fish and other marine species. It’s an unsustainable practice. We ought to consider looking at it with the same skepticism as rhinoceros horns and tiger teeth.

The body cannot make omega 3 fatty acid, so we must consume it in our food. We don’t need much of it, but it’s essential in a well balanced diet. However, getting it from supplements shows no benefit. This, according to a systemic survey that tracked over 70 studies that monitored over 100,000 people over the course of many years.

The survey found that only 8.8% of participants saw the purported benefits from taking omega 3 supplements. Interestingly, 9% had the same results by taking a placebo. There were no solidly convincing results demonstrating that using over the counter products are consistently effective. Although eating seafood, walnuts, and other whole foods rich in omega 3 is itself a healthful practice, extracting the oil to concentrate it into a pill or capsule doesn’t provide the same benefits.

Remember the broader context

As per usual, extracting one component of a food to provide a large dose of it removes the substance from interacting with other chemicals that work together to make a food wholesome. We tend to find a connection between some group of foods that offer similar benefits. We single out what they have in common, and then focus on that one molecule. But that is rather like isolating sound bites for headlines in the news. The broader context matters, and can ultimately change what is meant.

Fish oil supplements wreck marine ecology

It seems inconceivable, but there are now estimates that fish populations will totally collapse by the year 2048. It’s mind boggling. But if industries don’t change their current practices, the projected decline will reach 90%. According to a four-year international study of 7,800 marine species, the projected human population will be 9 billion people. The demands on every aspect of marine ecology will be stressed to the point of mass extinction.

“Dr Boris Worm, of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, the lead author, said: ‘This is what is projected, not predicted, to happen. I am confident we will not go there because we will do something about it. But if this trend continues in this predictable fashion, as it has for the last 50 years, the world’s currently fished seafoods will have reached what we define as collapse by 2048.’” – Charles Clover, The Telegraph

Alternative sources of omega 3

The idea that we should supplement with fish oil is morally irresponsible. Yes, a healthy diet includes omega 3 fatty acid; however, there are food sources of it that do not apply so much direct pressure to marine ecosystems. Consider these whole foods as alternatives:

• Seaweed
• Spirulina
• Chia seeds
• Hemp seeds
• Flax seeds
• Walnuts
• Edamame
• Kidney beans

In addition to omega 3 fat, these foods also tend to be good sources of numerous other healthful substances. They also tend to be good sources of protein, fiber, and other fats and minerals. These plant-based foods are more sustainable, both in terms of production and environmental impact. They are less expensive than seafood, and they require less energy to farm and process. Definitely get omega 3, but get it from wholesome, complete foods that significantly reduce the strain on the natural world.

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Jack Kirven is a mobile personal trainer in Charlotte, NC. He is the owner of INTEGRE8T Wellness.

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