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Apr 13, 2017

Experts Help Clarify Who Should Take Fish Oil Supplements

Current research shows a lack of evidence to recommend fish oil supplements to the general population.

Despite the substantial health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, there’s still not enough evidence to recommend widespread use of fish oil supplements for the prevention of heart disease, according to a recent advisory from the American Heart Association.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this paper served as an update to 2002 guidelines on fish oil supplements and heart disease prevention. Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, has been linked to a number of heart health benefits, such as reduced risk for heart disease and better overall health. As a result, dietary supplements have become increasingly popular, with nearly 8% of U.S. adults reported taking fish oil supplements in 2012. However, findings on the association between fish oil supplements and cardiovascular outcomes have been mixed. The latest report confirms that there’s still a lack of evidence for recommending fish oil supplements for heart disease prevention in the general population.

In the recent advisory, authors note that a number of new clinical trials have been conducted since 2002, which tested fish oil supplements in a variety of heart patients. Based on existing evidence, experts conclude that treatment is reasonable in patients with heart failure, as it helps reduce risk of hospitalization and death. Evidence also continues to support use of fish oil supplements in patients with a history of heart attack, as previous guidelines outlined.

But there’s still not enough evidence regarding fish oil use in patients with conditions like diabetes, atrial fibrillation and stroke. As we await results from the VITAL trial, which tests the benefits of fish oil in the general U.S. population, there’s also not enough evidence to recommend widespread fish oil supplements for the prevention of heart disease.

In the meantime, experts recommend that all patients consult with their doctor before taking fish oil supplements. While fish oil supplements are generally safe, it’s important to discuss potential risks and benefits with a health care provider.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What foods are highest in omega-3 fatty acids?

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are foods containing the most omega-3 fatty acids, followed by certain fish, fish oils and nuts. Certain plants and spices are also high in omega-3 fatty acid, such as fresh basil, dried oregano and grape leaves. 

  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

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