Omega 3 Supplements

Debbie Melvin  |  7/30/2010 2:13:56 AM

If your cardiologist has told you to eat more cold water fish for the heart health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but you prefer our fish to salmon and sardines, you may want to ask him about taking a fish oil supplement. But how do you shop for one?

Omega-3 fat lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of a heart attack or stroke by making the blood less likely to form clots, and protects against sudden death caused by irregular heartbeats. It may help lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides and reduce the risk of heart disease. The three beneficial fatty acids are EPA, DHA and ALA, using acronyms to keep it simple. The most common omega-3 fat, ALA, is less potent than EPA and DHA. It is found mainly in nuts, tofu and other soyfoods, and oils such as flaxseed, safflower, sunflower, corn and walnut. Interestingly, ALA must be converted by the body to EPA and DHA, and it is not always an efficient process. Cold water fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring contain the most EPA and DHA, the best of the three.

Just as food carries a Nutrition Facts label, vitamins and minerals carry a Supplement Facts label. Look for the amount of EPA and DHA per serving and how many capsules constitutes the serving. If the capsules are 1 g in size (a standard size for omega-3 supplements) and the serving size is 2 capsules, then the total fat will equal approximately 2,000 mg. However, this does not mean that all the fat in a fish oil capsule is omega-3 fatty acids.

To determine how much omega-3 fatty acids are in a supplement (oh no, not another math problem!), the “concentration” of omega-3 fatty acids in the product needs to be calculated. For our example, if the EPA is 800 mg and the DHA is 400 mg, the total omega-3 content in a serving of 2 capsules is 1200 mg. This means that 1200 of the 2000 mg is omega-3. Divide 1200 by 2000 to get the percentage of concentration. A supplement, like the example, with 60% EPA and DHA is considered a concentrated source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids. The remaining 40% of the oil in the product is more polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.

The difficult part is over, I promise. Although there are no significant drug interactions associated with eating foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, patients who are being treated with blood-thinning medications should not take omega-3 fatty acid supplements without seeking the advice of their physicians. Excessive bleeding could result. For the same reason, some patients who plan to take more than 3 grams (3000 mg) of omega-3 fatty acids in supplement form should first seek the approval of their physicians.

Remember to bring your calculator to the supplement aisle. Or head to the fresh fish or freezer case, purchase some salmon and be done with it.

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