Why we stopped recommending fish oil: It may be good for you, but being told to take it isn't.

Why we stopped recommending fish oil:
It may be good for you, but being told to take it isn't.

By Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D.

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Fish oil is an excellent supplement proven to provide significant benefits to most people. Here’s why we changed our fish oil recommendations anyway.

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Remember that feeling of being called to the principal’s office as a kid?

You’ve just been busted sticking gum in someone’s hair, passing a note, or throwing a paper airplane while your math teacher’s back was turned.

Uh oh.

Now you’re in big trouble. Just wait til your parents find out.

That’s the feeling I got when PN co-founder Dr. John Berardi called me on the carpet to demand an explanation after I, as the designer of the company’s nutrition coaching curricula, took fish oil, multivitamins, and probiotics off the roster.

OK, well, not really.

(Maybe a little bit.)

Fish oil was our go-to

Clients used to start their PN Coaching journey with a supplement habit right off the bat. Our standard instructions were:

Take omega-3 fatty acids (usually liquid fish oil) plus a multivitamin or probiotic. Start now. Do it every day.

The fish oil habit became a running joke among coaches and clients — how to gag down spoonfuls of the stuff, what to do about the aquarium-flavored burps, and how to argue with doctors and pharmacists who harrumphed about our recommended dosage.

Clients bonded over fish oil shooters, fluorescent yellow pee (a weird byproduct of the B vitamins in multivitamin formulations), and other digestive issues caused by this sudden torrent of good-for-you pills and potions in the GI tract. 

As a research-based company, we’d done our homework

We knew omega-3 fatty acids were good.

We’d plowed through literally hundreds of studies before suggesting omega-3, probiotics, and multivitamin supplements to our clients.

We knew most folks were deficient in fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and healthy gut bacteria.

And we knew that there’s a strong relationship between metabolism and a person’s microbiome.

So we knew that supplementing with relatively high doses of these would, in most clients, kick-start better health and fat loss.

After taking these supplements for a while, clients noticed their skin, moods, and energy were better. Joint pain and inflammation went down. Menstrual periods hurt less. Clients who got their blood tested even found that measures like lipids and sugars had improved.

Almost everything seemed to get better thanks to PN’s supplement recommendations.

Then, we reversed course

We stopped assigning these supplement habits.

Many returning clients wanted to know: Where’s the fish oil?

Why did we change our recommendations?

Let me explain with an example.

Let’s say I know a very nice person.

This person is smart, good-looking, and funny, with a variety of interesting hobbies. They have a great job that is fulfilling and well-paying, but they’re never too busy to enjoy life.

They dress well, smell good, and don’t snore. They like to cook, are kind to children and animals, dance like John Travolta circa 1977, and give excellent foot rubs.

They’re emotionally mature and easy to get along with. They always remember to pick up their socks and cheerfully take out the garbage without being reminded.

You should marry this person.

In fact, you have to marry this person right now. Today.

DO IT. Now. We’re all expecting it from you. GO.

What’s your problem? This person is a great catch!

We all agree — you have to get married immediately!! It’s for your own good! You want to be healthy and happy, don’t you?

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down there.

Notice how when a good thing becomes a “have to” and “should” and “right now” and “do it because we said so,” you suddenly feel a little resistant?

Who is this person? They sound cool… but… I want to know a little more about them first. Of course, I trust your judgment, PN, but… I’m feeling a little bit rushed here.

Well, that’s exactly how our clients felt when we asked them to take fish oil, probiotics, and multivitamins — rightthissecond.

It was too much, too soon.

We say, they say

As health-conscious, fitness-oriented researchers who make a living learning about this stuff, to us coaches, taking fish oil and other supplements was obvious and easy:

  • We knew what fish oil was.
  • We understood why it was important.
  • We’d read the research on it.
  • We’d seen it help us and our clients.
  • We knew where to get it.
  • We knew how to take it.
  • We knew what it tasted like, and which brands tasted best.
  • Most of us were taking it already anyway.

We’d all been taking fish oil for so long that the habit had become a no-brainer.

What we realized, finally, is that, to most of our clients, this stuff wasn’t obvious or easy in any way:

  • Wait… you can get oil from fish?
  • What does it do? Do I actually need that?
  • Where do you buy that?
  • My small town doesn’t have that. I need to drive 20 miles to the nearest health food store.
  • Doesn’t it taste disgusting? What do they do, put a tuna in a blender? Gross!
  • This bottle has X mg of EPA/DHA. Is that right? What about Y mg of EPA/DHA?
  • What about flax oil? Isn’t that good?
  • My doctor / pharmacist says the dose is too high.
  • I’m pregnant / nursing / taking other medications / etc. Is fish oil safe? 

We wondered why our clients were being so “difficult.” Why didn’t they listen to us, the geniuses at PN?

We’d forgotten what it was like to be a client.

One size fits… oops

We’d forgotten that our clients had to learn, know, and do dozens of things in order to understand, support, and execute the fish oil habit consistently.

It was way too much, too soon, at the beginning of a program that’s already full of new things — new software, new workouts, new community of people, new coach, new way of eating, etc.

Our clients were already nervous. Unsure of themselves. Laden with the baggage of past diet disasters. And confronted with change.

Asking them to do a task that was actually pretty complicated… well, it was doomed to fail.

And that fail would be on us.

Think about it this way.

Maybe our awesome marriage prospect is a guy. And you’re not into guys. Or maybe you’re 19 years old and really not ready to settle down right now.

Likewise, maybe you’re one of the folks whose stomach rebels against fish oil, or who gets acne from fish oil, or who’s allergic to fish and other seafood.

Maybe, in fact, you’re one of the very few folks who shouldn’t take fish oil — perhaps you’re on blood thinners or other medications, or you’re prone to things like bruising or detached retinas.

There’s no one-size-fits-all spouse for everyone, nor is marriage an ideal arrangement for everyone. Even if the other person is absolutely fantastic.

Similarly, there’s no one-size-fits-all habit for everyone.

Giving a few thousand people the same supplement as the first in a long, overwhelming chain of new habits — even if in general that supplement is safe and well-proven — was not a good approach.

In generalizing, we had created resistance to something that could be a huge benefit to most clients.

deaf

Don’t tell, guide

Finally, after getting more experience with behavioral psychology, we realized that telling people what to do — especially if there is urgency involved — goes against the human mind’s hardwiring.

People hate being told what to do. As soon as a “maybe” becomes a “must,” we instinctively panic or rebel.

We need time to process and consider things — to learn, understand, and decide for ourselves whether a given habit is right for us.

So we went back to the drawing board. We did our homework on human motivation and behavioral psychology.

We realized that, in order to guarantee our clients’ success, we need to help them feel:

  • safe and secure
  • autonomous
  • like what they’re doing has purpose and meaning
  • supported and guided
  • like they can go at their own pace
  • free to choose their own path, with expert help available when they need it

Enter the owner’s manual

We think of the owner’s manual concept — which now runs throughout PN’s coaching programs — as “handling instructions for your life.”

And YOU write those handling instructions. Not us.

Now, instead of telling clients what to do at the outset of PN Coaching and pushing them to do it, we ask them:

  • What do you want?
  • Where are you trying to go? How can we help you get there?
  • What is most important to you?
  • Out of these available options, which one would you choose? Why?
  • What are you willing to do and not do right now?
  • What would make a given habit work for you right now?

We recognize that things that seem simple to us (such as having a healthy kitchen or working out regularly) are actually very complex behaviors for clients. Just like the skills that are second nature to them (like software design or knitting or building ice sculptures) would take us coaches a long time to develop.

Each skill has to be learned, step by step, and divided into several tiny pieces.

Now, we break tasks down and build skills cumulatively. Each one is an experiment, not a “rule.”

With each tiny piece, clients get to decide for themselves:

  • Is this right for me right now?
  • If so, how can I do this consistently and well?
  • If not, how can I adjust it to match my needs?

Good news! Our clients liked this new direction. They’re happier, more relaxed, and excited about being in charge of their own progress.

So… is fish oil “bad”?

You might be wondering what this means for poor ol’ fish oil — and our other recommended supplements.

Fish oil is still a good supplement for most people.

We still recommend it, along with its buddies probiotics, multivitamins and other tried-and-true supplements, such as protein powder and essential amino acids (EAAs), in our PN Coaching program.

But it’s no longer a required habit for everyone. It’s an option.

Instead, we focus on:

  • building skills, crucial behaviors, and consistent practices that can help people learn and do any habit
  • helping people understand how to consciously choose healthier behaviors that meet their needs, wants, and lifestyles

No matter how great a supplement, task, or exercise program is — and we think fish oil is great — it’s no good if clients can’t or won’t do it, or if it doesn’t match their needs.

What to do next

If you’re a seasoned fitness professional, or even just starting out with a client or two, you may recognize yourself (or your “difficult” clientele) here.

There are steps you can take to improve the way you present new habits to clients — and increase the likelihood that they’ll succeed.

(Of course, if you’re not a fitness professional, all of these steps will apply to the process of coaching yourself).

Understand that it takes two to create resistance.

How are you — unwittingly — creating resistance in your clients by telling them, pushing them, rushing them, directing them, or asking too much of them at once?

Are you giving them tasks that are too complicated, without giving them the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns, or confirm that the tasks are manageable?

Remember that most of your clients are not you.

If you’re reading this, and if you’re a fitness pro (or thinking of becoming one), you probably make exercise and good nutrition a top priority.

You’re not normal. (Sorry.)

Your clients have different skill sets, different lifestyles, and different needs.

Understand, observe, and learn about your clients first.

Who are they? What do they need and want? What can they do confidently and well?

Assess them carefully and spend most of your time listening rather than talking.

Let your clients “choose from the menu.”

Offer two or three options that can be adjusted to match your client’s needs and abilities. Let them choose (or suggest their own), and then collaborate on how to do the assigned task.

This will improve your clients’ sense of self-efficacy and autonomy. When they feel in control of their choices, they’re much more likely to do those things (and to achieve their health and fitness goals).

Test “ready, willing, and able.”

With each new task or change, test that your client is ready, willing, and able to do it.

Your client should be at least 90 percent confident that they can and will complete the task. If you don’t get that 9 out of 10 commitment, then shrink or change the task until you get it.

Recognize your own ego investment.

We pouted and snorted when our clients didn’t immediately jump through our hoops. Didn’t they know we were the experts?

Then we got over ourselves and realized we’re here to serve and guide… not be all-knowing dictators.

In other words: We shifted from being coach-centric (i.e. proving ourselves “right,” or establishing our authority) to being client-centric (i.e. helping our clients find the right path for them).

Get coaching yourself.

Sign up for the Precision Nutrition Certification program for a deeper understanding of how to communicate with clients effectively.

Or consider going through our PN Coaching program.