Australians spend around $200m annually on fish oil supplements (an amount which is increasing by 10 per cent every year), yet only 20 per cent of us are getting enough fish oils, or omega-3s each day. But are supplements worth it, or should you invest in your diet instead?
If you eat fish regularly, or pop a fish oil or omega-3 supplement on a fairly daily basis, odds are you're aware that doing so is good for your health. And for good reason. Omega-3s are essential to our overall health and have many established health benefits. “They're also important for neurological development, good eyesight, new nerve growth, reducing your risk of blood clots and fatal heart attacks, and are anti-inflammatory,” Professor Barbara Meyer, director of the Lipid Research Centre at the University of Wollongong, tells SBS. “Even though omega-3s are fats, they're healthy fats, and we need more of them in our diet. As a country, we're heading towards a deficiency of omega-3s; our levels are sub-optimal. ”
Why omega-3s are so important
Before you rush off and pop a supplement, it's important to understand why omega-3s are so integral for good health. Dr Rosemary Stanton, public health nutritionist and Visiting Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales, tells SBS that “Omega 3 fatty acids form part of the structure of membranes around every cell in the body, which are necessary for the body to function correctly.”
Stanton explains that omega 3 fatty acids need to be present in appropriate amounts to counterbalance the effects of omega 6 fatty acids, which mostly come from processed foods. “Omega-6s are not the enemy - indeed some omega-6 fat is essential for growth and health, but some current diets have more omega-6s and less omega-3s. We need to ensure our diets contain the right balance of omega-3s for optimum health.”
Fish supplement or fish supper?
Whether you decide to increase the amount of omega-3s in your diet, or take a daily supplement, you need to include it in your diet in some form. “Our bodies cannot make omega-3s, so getting enough in your diet is incredibly important,” Chloe McLeod, an Accredited Practising Dietitian, tells SBS.
There are two types of omega-3 fats: plant-based (such as walnuts, linseeds, canola, soy and spinach) and marine-based (think mackerel, tuna, swordfish, trout or Atlantic salmon). “While both sources are a must in your diet, it's the fish oils which give you the important fats: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and (eicosapentaenoic acid) EPA,” says Meyer.
Fish for dinner? Try miso-gilled salmon with soba noodles.
“EPA and DHA are mostly present in seafood. All Australian seafood (including crustaceans and molluscs) have enough omega-3 fatty acids to be legally labelled as a good source,” says Stanton. “The colder the water the fish inhabit, the higher their level of EPA. Many fish caught in Australian waters are higher in DHA.” EPA is converted to DHA in the body, so for practical purposes, there is no real need to favour one over the other, advises Stanton.
A short study conducted by Dr Michael Mosley for SBS's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (watch the episode 7.30pm Monday 13 March, then on SBS On Demand) took a closer look at the best way to get more omega-3s.
“We’re always hearing about how important omega 3 is for our health,” Mosley says, “particularly our heart.” But does eating more fish, or taking supplements, really make a difference? Mosley and his team set out to find out.
As Dr Chris van Tulleken explains in the show, oily fish are packed with nutrients. That includes omega 3s, which are also found in plant oils and supplements. The team found a lot of variation in what’s in pills and capsules and how much they cost, and even one where the oil had gone rancid. “Make sure you check the label so you can choose a supplement with the longest possible shelf-life,” van Tulleken suggests, “and store the supplements in a cool, dry, dark place to minimise the chancece of storage.”
But do supplements have the same benefits as fresh fish? Mosley reports that an eight-week trial conducted for Trust Me I'm A Doctor found that eating fish at least twice times a week, or taking a daily omega-3 supplement of at least 250mg were both conducive to raising individual omega-3 levels.
“There’s no doubt that eating two portions of oily fish a week is a good option for getting your omega 3,” says Mosley, "and it’s packed with other healthy nutrients too.”
“A supplement is a concentrated form of omega-3s,” says Meyer. “However, taking it on its own won't stimulate your fat digestion (the release of bile from your gall bladder). Take it with a fatty meal, such as full-fat milk, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, nuts or avocado.”
The Australian Heart Foundation recommends eating at least one serving of green, leafy vegetables every day, and at least two to three servings of oily fish every week.
Grilled spice-crusted fish with tahini sauce is packed with flavour and nutrients.
Myer points out that for some people with special dietary needs or preferences, supplements may be a good option.
What's important, says Meyer, is that you include omega-3s in your diet in whichever form suits you. “If you're between 50 and 70, supplement during those years to offset or delay age-related illnesses, such as dementia, heart disease or arthritis,” she says. “Omega-3s are the most likely way you can prevent or reduce your risk of ill health, now and in the future.”
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Watch Trust Me I'm A Doctor Monday 7.30pm on SBS, then on SBS On Demand.