Should You Take Fish Oil or Go Straight to the Source?

Omega-3s in both give your heart a boost

Salmon on a blue plate
Gabriel Bucataru/Stocksy United

If you're interested in healthy cholesterol levels, you may find it's as simple as adding fish to your diet. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been proven to lower cholesterol levels. Although experts recommend that most people start incorporating two servings of fish into their diet each week, those with high triglyceride levels might need a supplement.

Cholesterol and Fish Oil

Scientists aren't completely certain why omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oils and other sources, lower blood lipid levels, but the research is clear: Fish oil is good for the heart.

In fact, a study published in 2005 in The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice found that those with a history of heart attack who took a supplement of 1.8g of fish oil were 29 percent less likely to experience a cardiac event. The same study concluded that just one meal of fish a week could be "associated with a 52 percent reduction in sudden cardiac death."

A meta-analysis of more than 70 studies found that fish oil was particularly beneficial for the treatment of high triglycerides, which are a type of cholesterol linked to a high risk of coronary heart disease. The studies analyzed in the meta-analysis found that high triglyceride levels could be lowered between 20 and 50 percent by taking 2 to 4g of fish oil daily.

Food Sources of Omega-3s

For people with no history of heart disease, cholesterol levels can be lowered and kept under control by simply eating fish twice a week. However, not all fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of fish that are high in the necessary fatty acids include salmon, anchovies, sardines, trout, bass, catfish, albacore tuna, herring, and mackerel. There are other food sources of omega-3 fatty acids for those who don't enjoy eating fish. These foods include tofu; flaxseed; canola and olive oils; English walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and leafy, green vegetables like kale (although since greens are low in fat, they have much smaller amounts of omega-3s).

Should You Take a Supplement?

According to the American Heart Association, it's best to get omega-3 fatty acids through food sources. However, there are supplements available for people who need more fatty acids than they can get through diet alone. Researchers are still studying how supplements work to lower cholesterol levels compared with omega-3 fatty acids found in food products. Before beginning a supplement regimen, talk to your doctor about the benefits and dosage that's right for you.


The American Heart Association has recommendations for individuals based on their history of heart disease:

  • Those with no history of heart disease: Make fish a regular part of your diet. Try to consume fish twice per week. Also include foods like canola oil and soybean products in your diet.
  • Those with heart disease: Eat at least 1g of the fatty acids (docosahexaenoic acid or eicosapentaenoic acid) daily. These acids are found in fatty fish and supplements. Talk to your doctor before beginning a dietary supplement.
  • Those with high triglycerides: Get between 2 and 4g of docosahexaenoic acid or eicosapentaenoic acid daily. At this dosage, it is likely that it will be necessary to take supplements. Talk to your doctor about your dosage.


Although the FDA states that omega-3 fatty acids are "generally regarded as safe," there are potential risks. Fish oils can raise the blood sugar of people with diabetes. According to the National Institutes of Health, omega-3 fatty acids can also "increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke," which means bleeding in the brain. If you have diabetes or are at an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke, talk to your doctor about the risks associated with fish oil, which are usually minimal.

In addition, doses above 1g of omega-3 fatty acids daily have been shown to cause nosebleeds in some individuals. If you do experience increased frequency or duration of nosebleeds while taking fish oil supplements, talk to your doctor about the risks. He or she may want you to reduce your dosage.

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