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Fish Oil: The Magic Supplement?

Fish oil is touted as the next “super-food,” with claims ranging from weight management to heart disease prevention. But what is it exactly, and why is it so good for you? Is it worth a try? Find out with this quick guide.
Fish Oil: The Magic Supplement?

Every day, over 2,500 Americans die from heart disease. That’s roughly a million people a year, or one person every 34 seconds. Indeed, heart disease has been the number one killer in America for the past hundred years—every year except 1918, to be exact. So it’s really no surprise that supposed “miracle” foods pop up once in a while, claiming to keep this lethal disease at bay.

These days, much of the hype is on fish oil. According to proponents, just a tablespoon of fish oil a day can cut your heart disease risk by as much as 75%. And it’s not just your heart—it is also believed to fight cancer, arthritis, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and a slew of other diseases. But is it for real, or is it just another health fad? Here are some of the basics.

What it is

Fish oil comes from the body tissues of oily fish such as trout, salmon, and mackerel. Oily fish is an important dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, a compound proven to reduce cholesterol levels and promote cardiovascular health. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends at least one portion of it a week, or two to three servings a week for people with known risk factors (such as age, weight, and a family history of heart disease).

Fish oil supplements can come in liquid or capsule form. Liquid supplements are ingested directly and are thus more efficient, but some people don’t like the fishy taste it leaves in the mouth. That’s why fish oil capsules are more popular—they carry the same dosage in a more conventional soft-gel capsule.

How it works

You’ve probably heard of good and bad cholesterol. The latter, also called low-density lipoprotein (LDL), is the kind that hardens in your artery lining, blocking blood flow, and eventually leading to a heart attack. LDLs are found mainly in animal fats and most processed foods.

Good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL), does the opposite: it flushes out these fatty deposits and improves heart circulation. Omega-3 is an example of good cholesterol. Studies show that the average American diet is very low in HDL, which may explain the increasing incidence of heart disease.

That’s where fish oil supplements come in. People who don’t have time for home-cooked meals, have food allergies, or simply don’t like fish can get their daily dose of omega-3 from supplements.

Some precautions

Cod liver oil is a different supplement obtained from the livers of cod and other white fish. It has the same omega-3 content as regular fish oil, but also high levels of vitamins A and D. To get the right amount of omega-3 from cod liver oil, one would have to consume way more vitamin D than is safely allowed. This puts you at risk of an overdose, which can result in heart abnormalities and kidney disease.

One thing to remember is that more isn’t necessarily better. Some fish oils have been found to contain traces of mercury, which can be poisonous in the long term. This is because most waters have been contaminated over the years. To stay safe, set a maximum of one tablespoon a day, and have your doctor prescribe a safe supplement for you.

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