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Many people pop fish oil supplements religiously citing the infinite benefits of taking it- how it is good for your heart, brain and joints. But, newer medical evidences point to the fact that whole fish is better than supplements for getting fish oil.

Ever since the world came to know about the benefits of consuming fish oil, the sale of fish oil supplements has increased manifold. People understand that omega 3 fatty acids which are extremely good for the health of the cardiovascular system and the brain are abundant in fish oil. Since it is not easy to include fish in your everyday diet, the fish oil supplement industry is booming. Even though the people around the world have reduced popping multivitamin pills, yet the sale of fish oil supplements shows unprecedented growth. The fish oil supplement industry is worth at least $25 billion globally and it is believed that one in every five people is hooked to these supplements. But the bottom line is whether the supplements are really as good as people from the supplement industry would like us to believe or is there something fishy?

Let us compare the benefits of eating whole fish to that of consuming fish oil supplements.

Nutrient content of Fish oil Supplements and whole fish

The first thing that comes to my mind is the comparison between the nutrient content of both whole fish and fish oil supplements. Fish oil is full of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two different types of long chain omega 3 fatty acids found in fatty layers of cold water fish and shellfish. Fish oil supplements derived from salmon and cod liver also contain some amount of vitamin D. Compared to this, whole fish is loaded with minerals apart from omega 3 fatty acids. It is particularly rich in selenium, an element that gives protection against mercury poisoning. Selenium is completely absent in fish oil supplements. It is also loaded with Vitamin D, an important vitamin effective against many illnesses. It has been estimated that about 1,700 IU of vitamin D is present in just a 6 oz. portion of wild salmon. No other dietary source is as rich a source of vitamin D as this. Apart from omega 3 fatty acids, selenium and vitamin D, whole fish also contains abundant quantities of various proteins and co-factors. For this one single factor of being rich in nutrient content, I would recommend eating fish over popping fish oil supplements.

Absorption of Nutrients

It has been seen that although fish oil supplements are very rich in EPA and DHA, the same cannot be said about their absorption by the body. Compared to this, the nutrients present in whole fish are better absorbed. Scientists have been trying to evaluate the reason behind this. Certain studies have shown that other fats present in the whole fish activate various processes which facilitate better absorption of these omega acids.

In a study, published in the journal Lipids, the participants were either given salmon or supplements containing almost an equivalent level of EPA and DHA for a period of 6 weeks. It was seen at the end of the study period, the subjects who ate salmon had almost nine times higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids in their body compared to subjects who received fish oil supplementation.

The only valid point that should deter people from consuming whole fish and opting for fish oil substitutes would be the fear of possible contamination of the fish. But even that fear can be allayed by buying fish which have been approved by groups like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Continue reading after recommendations

  • “Association between fish consumption, long chain omega 3 fatty acids, and risk of cerebrovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis,” by Rajiv Chowdhury, Sarah Steven, et al. Published in the 2012 issue of the British Medical Journal, Accessed on May 15, 2013
  • “Omega 3 fatty acid for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia,” by Sydenham E, et al. published in the June 2012 issue of Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, accessed on May 15, 2013
  • “Association Between Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation and Risk of Major Cardiovascular Disease Events: A Systematic Review and Meta- analysis,” by Evangelos C. Rizos, et al. Published in the September 12, 2012 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, accessed on May 15, 2013.
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