Fish vs. Fish Oil: Which Is Better?

A diet rich in fatty fish provides a wealth of healthy benefits. But if you're one of those people who can't bear the smell - or even the sight - of seafood, maybe a fish oil supplement can reel in the important omega-3s you need.

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for a healthy diet. They play a crucial role in how the body's cells function and can help reduce cardiovascular risks and much more.

"Omega-3s have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body and can decrease symptoms associated with arthritis and chronic disease," says Jill Dodson, a Virtua dietitian. "If you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, then omega-3s can help reduce your risk of developing arrhythmia or artery-clogging plaque."

Because your body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, you must obtain them from food, most notably fish. Omega-3 fatty acids can be acquired by eating cold water fish such as:

  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Halibut
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Anchovies
  • Rainbow trout

"The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating a three-ounce serving of oily fish at least two times a week to get the heart-healthy benefits from omega-3s," says Dodson.

Fish oil supplements can be an alternative

While eating fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, not everyone is a seafood fan. If you don't like fish, have a fish allergy, or you're a vegetarian or pregnant, then try taking fish oil supplements. One fish oil capsule contains about 1,000 milligrams of omega-3s, which is comparable to one three-ounce serving of fatty fish.

"In general, people don't eat enough fish because it's too costly, they don't enjoy it or they're worried about mercury levels," says Dodson. "But we need those omega-3s in our diet. Fish oil supplements are good alternatives because they provide healthy benefits from omega-3s."

When choosing a fish oil supplement, Dodson says to make sure it contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), two essential omega-3 fatty acids that are proven to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammation.

"If you're a vegetarian who doesn't want to consume anything that is associated with fish," says Dodson, "then you can purchase an algae-based DHA supplement as an option."

Dodson adds you should take one fish oil capsule a day, but it's always important to follow your doctor's instructions.

The fish vs. fish oil battle royal winner is …

According to the AHA, if you want the full omega-3 fatty acid health benefits, then fish reigns supreme.

"Studies have shown that fish, in addition to providing cardiovascular benefits, is loaded with healthy vitamins and minerals as well as protein that you just can't get from fish oil supplements," says Dodson. "But taking a fish oil supplement, especially if you don't like fish or can't get enough in your diet, is a great backup plan."

Updated December 29, 2017

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