Something fishy: Do you really need fish oil?

There are so many different supplements on the market, all claiming to give us better health, whether that means more energy, better focus, stronger bones, or a tougher immune system. It’s hard to know whether we’re getting enough vitamins and minerals in our diet, so it can be easy to turn to a supplement to allay our health fears. It’s the ‘just in case’ approach.

One of the most popular nutritional supplements is fish oil. But why would you even need fish oil? Isn’t oil bad for you? Fish oil is full of omega-3 essential fatty acids, but what is that and why do we need it? Read on to explore what fish oil is, and whether fish oil supplements can really improve our overall health and wellbeing.

What is fish oil?

Fish oil capsules next to sprat

Fish oil is an oil extracted from oily fish. Commonly-consumed oily fish include sardines, herring, anchovies, salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel. Oily fish have high proportions of oil in their tissues and the belly cavity around their gut. These can be compared to white fish, which only contain significant amounts of oil in the liver and are overall less oily. Examples of white fish are cod, haddock and flatfish. Generally speaking, white fish live on or near the sea floor, while oily fish live in the water away from the sea bottom.

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What is fish oil used for?

The main use of fish oil is as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. These are necessary for a number of body functions including brain health, growth and development, and inflammation. Deficiencies have been linked to a number of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis and some brain conditions. However, consuming too much may also be bad for you. The short story is that research is still ongoing into understanding exactly how omega-3 fatty acids, or lack thereof, can affect our bodies.

The body cannot make its own omega-3 fatty acids, so it can only be obtained through dietary consumption. That’s why they’re often referred to as ‘essential’ fatty acids.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids required for human health. These are ɑ-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The human body can create EPA and DHA out of ALA, but at a very low rate of efficiency. EPA and DHA can be found in fish oil and krill oil, while ALA is found in a number of seed oils including chia, flaxseed (aka linseed), canola (aka rapeseed), and soybeans.

Does fish oil work?

There isn’t a definitive yes or no answer to this one. Experts differ on their stance on fish oil supplements, with research showing inconsistent results. If you’re looking to boost your EPA and DHA intake, it probably won’t hurt but may not give you the results you’re looking for. It may end up being a waste of money.

You should talk to your doctor to find out whether you’re low on omega-3s and whether fish oil may be useful for you.

What kinds of fish oil supplements are there?

nutritional supplements

Fish oil is generally sold in two forms – as liquid oil, or soft capsules filled with oil. The advantage of the capsules is that it’s much easier to control dosage. Young children and people who have difficulty swallowing pills may be better off taking the pure oil.

Capsules can come in a range of sizes and concentrations, with the most common being a 1,000mg capsule with an EPA content of 180mg and DHA content of 120mg. Many brands also produce capsules with additional supplements, such as vitamin D or a multivitamin.

How much does fish oil cost?

The cost of fish oil varies based on concentration, volume, and whether or not it’s combined with other vitamins or minerals. Then you’ve got to consider how much it will cost to meet your specific supplement needs. To make sense of all of this, we’ve tabled an indicative price range from major retailers for product per capsule, organised by concentration. We’ve also listed the cost range of 1 millilitre of liquid oil.

Brand Capsule type Omega-3 content

per capsule

Cost per capsule
Blackmores 1,000mg EPA 180mg, DHA 120mg $0.04 – $0.13
Swisse 1,500mg EPA 270mg, DHA 180mg $0.07 – $0.12
Nature’s Own 1,000mg EPA 180mg, DHA 120mg $0.04 – $0.33
1,500mg EPA 270mg, DHA 180mg $0.05 – $0.15
2,000mg EPA 360mg, DHA 240mg $0.08 – $0.18
Ethical Nutrients Hi-Strength EPA 300mg, DHA 200mg $0.38 – $0.52

From here, all you need to do is:

  1. Know what dosage you need (i.e. how many milligrams of EPA and DHA you need).
  2. Figure out how many capsules or millilitres you need to meet that dosage.
  3. Divide the cost of a packet by the number of capsules or millilitres it contains (which we’ve done for you in the table below as a guide – prices vary by retailer).
  4. Multiply that number by the number of capsules or milligrams you need to take to meet your daily supplement needs.

Then you’ll know how much you’re paying per day of supplement! There’s quite a significant price variation. This is partly because larger packets have a cheaper per-capsule price. In addition, discount pharmacies can be significantly cheaper than the recommended retail price.

Both regular and odourless products are included in each price range. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay a little bit more for odourless.

Liquid oils vary significantly in omega-3 concentration, so make sure your ‘bargain’ isn’t actually just a diluted product.

Brand Omega-3 content per millilitre Cost per millilitre
Swisse EPA 139mg, DHA 87mg $0.03 – $0.06
Nature’s Own EPA 162mg, DHA 108mg $0.05 – $0.07
Ethical Nutrients EPA 380mg, DHA 185mg $0.19 – $0.28

You can buy fish oil from chemists, supermarkets and some health food stores.

How do I get omega-3s if I’m vegetarian or allergic to fish?

Brown flax seed and linseed oil

If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or allergic to fish, there’s no need to worry about not being able to get your essential omega-3 fatty acids. While fish are a great source of EPA and DHA, there are fish-free alternatives available. ALA can also be found in a number of plant-derived oils and nuts, which can be converted by the body into EPA and DHA (albeit inefficiently).

The richest source of ALA is flaxseed, with about 7 grams of ALA per tablespoon of flaxseed oil. This converts to about 700mg of EPA and DHA. Comparing serving sizes, you need to consume a lot more flaxseed compared to fish oil to get the same nutritional benefit. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, it just means you need to take more capsules or liquid oil.

Flaxseed oil is widely available in the supplements section along with fish oil.

Should I take fish oil?

Many people, worried about not getting enough vitamins and minerals, take supplements as a ‘just in case’. But unless you have a deficiency that you’re particularly addressing, it’s often a waste of money.

You’ll likely only need a supplement if you’re not getting sufficient omega-3 fatty acids from your diet. It’s usually preferable to improve your nutrient intake through consuming more nutrient-rich foods, rather than jumping straight to supplements. If you’re unable to make dietary changes to meet your nutritional needs, this is when you may need a supplement.

Talk to your doctor to find out if you need fish oil. You should always consult your doctor before commencing any supplements, and make sure you’re taking a safe dosage.

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