Back to Living Better

Do fish oil supplements protect heart health?

If you take fish oil supplements for heart health, they may not be as effective as you think.

“A recent analysis of combined data from multiple well-conducted studies concluded that there is no clear reduction in death, death from heart disease, heart attack or stroke with the intake of fish oil supplements,” says Jacqueline Green, M.D., MPH, a cardiologist at Piedmont. “This finding is consistent with another analysis of a large number of patients published in March 2018. Older studies that found a cardiovascular benefit to fish oil were largely observational.”

What does this mean if you currently take fish oil supplements?

“Taking fish oil supplements is probably not dangerous, but for patients already on optimal medical therapy for heart health, the additional benefit of fish oil supplements in preventing significant heart disease is uncertain,” she says.

For this reason, Dr. Green no longer recommends fish oil supplements to her patients.

If you currently take fish oil or another supplement, it’s essential to talk with your doctor.

“Patients should undergo age-appropriate screenings for cardiovascular and other diseases to guide their individual treatment plan,” she says. “While many supplements are safe, some supplements may interact with prescribed medications, affecting their safety. Therefore, a careful review of all supplements is important for patient safety.”

Should you still eat fish for heart health?

If fish oil supplements have no proven benefit for heart health, should you still eat fish and other foods with fatty acids?

Dr. Green says it’s likely safe to eat a moderate amount of fish, but the overall risks and benefits to heart health are still unclear. A moderate amount is approximately one to two servings per week.

Plant-based sources of fatty acids may still benefit your heart health.

“Fatty acids derived from vegetables, such as those found in green leafy plants, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil, may be cardio-protective,” she says. “I recommend that my patients eat a well-balanced, plant-rich diet. Legumes, mushrooms, antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, and moderate coffee and tea consumption are all beneficial.”

Foods to avoid for heart health

“I advise patients to avoid added sugars and to eat animal protein in moderation, with red meat being the least heart-healthy,” says Dr. Green. “Fried foods, processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages should be avoided.”

Proven ways to protect your heart health

  • Exercise and quit smoking. Exercise regularly (at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week) and quit smoking if you are a smoker. “It is so hard to get patients to make these two lifestyle changes that we know work,” she says. “There is no supplement available that will make it heart-healthy to be sedentary or to smoke.”

  • Get a heart health checkup. Dr. Green also recommends getting screened for heart disease risk factors and treating the risk factors aggressively. “High blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can go undiagnosed for years, wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular system before a patient develops symptoms,” she explains. “If you have not seen a doctor recently, go get screened.”

  • Know the signs of a heart attack and stroke. “If you have either, call 911,” she says. Learn the warning signs of a stroke and the symptoms of a heart attack.

  • Learn hands-only CPR. “You may be the difference between a family member, friend or stranger surviving a heart attack, or not,” says Dr. Green.

Learn more about heart health from Living Better experts.