Are Fish Oil Capsules As Good as Fish?

Are Fish Oil Capsules As Good as Fish?

I’ve written a lot on this site about some of the research showing benefits of fish oil, so I was especially interested in seeing a great article on the Huffington Post that raises the really interesting question as to whether taking fish oil capsules is as good as real fish. In the article Jena Pincott cites some interesting research that shows that perhaps it is much better to be eating fish instead of taking supplements.

She raises the question saying:

Everyone has assumed that when it comes to DHA and other omega-3s, the source — whole fish or fish oil pills –shouldn’t matter. Seems reasonable, but is it?

A few very recent fish oil studies cast doubt:

Among the studies she cites are the following:

Looking at the recent studies, the ones that show support for a brain boost involve only eating fish (not fish oil pills):

  • In a study that took place the Arctic, 11-year-old Inuit children who had higher-than-average DHA at birth achieved significantly higher scores on tests related to recognition memory processing. The source of DHA in their mothers’ diets was fish and marine mammals, not pills.
  • A UK study of 217 nine-year-olds whose mothers had eaten oily fish in early pregnancy had a reduced risk of hyperactivity, and children whose mothers had eaten fish in late pregnancy had a verbal IQ that was 7.55 points higher than those whose mothers did not eat fish.
  • A study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that fish-eaters generally gave birth to larger babies while fish-oil-pill-poppers had newborns with a smaller head circumference.

This is all really interesting stuff. Now it stands to reason that there will be all kinds of other factors included in whole fish that are not in fish oil pills. The idea that you can get all of the goodness from a supplement is just mad. It is the thinking that leads to people taking lycopene pills instead of eating tomatoes and other foods that are naturally rich in this substance. So I’m not totally surprised that there is good research showing that eating fish is good. I’m also not totally surprised that she has found a few studies showing no real benefit or no statistically significant benefit. This is partly due to the sample size (not all of these studies are big enough to produce meaningful results that might not just be random – which is why you want bigger studies rather than smaller ones). It is also down to the sorts of studies. Ideally you want to look for large meta-studies, where researchers look at the results of large numbers of different studies to see if by looking at many they get a better result than by looking at just a few.

Finally, you want to look for studies that are known as randomised double-blind studies. In these, people are chosen randomly from a group. Some are given the substance being studied, others are given a harmless but useless substance (known as a placebo). Neither the people nor even the researchers dealing directly with them should know which is which to avoid a bias or “placebo effect” whereby people get better because they think they are given medicine (when in fact they may just be getting a sugar pill)

Early fish oil supplementation may have a negative effect on later cognitive abilities