Fish Oil May Not Be The Miraculous Solution To All Your Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) Requirements
How fish became known as a ‘miracle’ food
Supplementation with fish oil has become extremely popular, due to researchers discovering, many years ago, that certain groups of people, especially those who follow a Mediterranean diet, are healthier than those people who don’t. The assumption was that their diets, which contained a lot of fish (maybe up to three times a week) was helping them stay healthier for longer.
There has been research to support the health benefits of fish, where it has been shown that eating fish is helpful in preventing a second heart attack, in people who have already had one attack. Fish is therefore seen as having some protective benefits.
However, the Mediterranean people also consume generous servings of vegetables, fruit, olive oil and whole grains, in their diet, so fish is only part of what they eat, and is generally served in preference to dairy products and meat.
Another very important aspect to their health, that wasn’t seen as being very important at the time of the research, was that these people are also very community-orientated. Their mealtimes are very social, and we know today that being involved in your community and enjoying your meals with family members and friends is good for both your physical and mental health.
However fish oil supplement manufacturers focused on the link between health and fish consumption, because it was an easy marketing message.
Fat is critical in your diet
Fat is the second most abundant compound in the body, with water being number one. Your body can make saturated and monounsaturated fats from carbohydrates. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats and oils, also called Omega-3 and Omega 6 fats, are essential to life, which means they have to be obtained in your diet, as your body cannot make them. If you don’t get them in your diet you will be deficient in them. Interestingly, the human brain needs a lot of these Omega fats, with about 20% of the brain being made up of these unique fats.
Fish Oil ≠ Omega 3
Omega 3 is a family of unsaturated fatty acids, which have a number of very important functions to perform in the human body. Many people have come to think of Omega 3 as being fish oil, but this is not the whole story. The Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) family contains a number of different fats, of which DHA and EPA are very well known. Fish Oil contains DHA and EPA, but is different to plant based Omega 3’s as fish oil does not contain other foundation fats, which are also necessary for the human body.
A little more scientific detail behind the fish oil story
One of the reasons for the confusion about whether fish oil Omega 3 supplementation is better than plant based Omega 3 supplementation is because fish oil contains the derivatives of the plant based Omega 3 fats, DHA and EPA. A derivative is a by-product of the original item or compound. However, this does not mean that a derivative is unimportant. It is very important, and has other functions to perform, apart from the original compound. In the same way, the original, or foundation compound, the plant based Omega 3 fats, are also critical for health, as they also have very important functions to perform in all our cell membranes, as well as our cells, organs and tissues. So, we need both the foundation, plant based Omega 3 fats and the derivatives, DHA and EPA.
Can DHA and EPA only be found in fish?
People have been led to believe that the Omega 3 derivatives, DHA and EPA, are only obtained in cold-water fish and fish oil supplements. This is not true. They are also found in certain forms of algae. Furthermore, most people are capable of converting the plant based Omega 3’s into enough DHA and EPA, if they have enough of the plant based, foundation Omega 3’s and what are called co-factors, which are simply the Vitamins B3, B6, C and the minerals zinc and magnesium, which help the body convert the plant based Omega 3’s into DHA and EPA. So, your body can make the derivatives of the plant based Omega 3 fats, which are already present in cold-water fish. A small percentage of people do this conversion very slowly, and they may benefit from adding an algae source of DHA and EPA to their diet. (This topic is discussed in more detail further on in this article).
Interestingly, any DHA and EPA found in fish had its origin from a plant. When a small fish has eaten algae, and then been eaten by a bigger fish, all the way up to the larger fish, this larger fish only has DHA and EPA in it because the fish at the bottom of the food chain, ate the algae. Yes, the algae is where the DHA and EPA originates. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring, and to a lesser extent sardines and tuna are rich sources of DHA and EPA because they are carnivorous fish and eat the smaller (vegetarian) fish that have eaten algae.
Many people have also been led to believe that the DHA and EPA are the only important Omega 3’s they need. This is also incorrect. You need a lot of foundation fats, which is what the plant based Omega 3 fats (and the Omega 6 fats) are, to keep optimally healthy. Only consuming DHA and EPA will not lead to long-term health. They are important parts of the Omega 3 family, but they are not the whole family.
Clinical trials on fish vs plant-based Omega 3’s
When researchers looked at the Mediterranean studies of health, they saw that people who ate fish regularly, up to three times a week, were less likely to suffer from heart disease. This led to a number of studies that indicated some heart-health benefits from eating fish. However, an astounding fact emerged too – one that they weren’t expecting.
Two of these trials indicated that eating fish, or taking a fish oil supplement did reduce the chance of having a second heart attack. However, another trial indicated that consuming a plant-based Omega 3 supplement reduced the risk of having a second heart attack by at least twice that of the fish oil! This was a 70% reduction in mortality. Added to this result was a significant reduction in coronary ‘events’ and these protective effects were quick to make themselves evident. When assessed four years later, patients were still benefiting if they were following the diet.
Therefore, the plant based Omega 3’s were more effective at reducing the risk of cardiac death in high-risk patients. Plant Omega 3’s also reduced the number of painful, not-fatal heart attacks, and there are long-term survival benefits from consuming plant Omega 3’s whereas there weren’t with consuming fish oils.
So what should I supplement with? A fish oil capsule or plant based Omega 3’s?
As already discussed, your body cannot function optimally without the right kinds of fats. But you also need more of the right fats than you may have been led to believe. These fats are actually the foundation of your health, and are also called foundation fats.
If you only consume a fish oil supplement, you are supplying your body with a maximum of 3 – 5 mg of fat, which is about 2.5% of your calories if you are eating 2000 calories a day. You actually need more than 15% of your calories, but less than 60%, to be made up of fat! Your ideal intake will depend on your level of activity. Eating 10% of your calories as fat, is not enough, and will result in dry skin, low energy levels, and ultimately ill health.
If you were to consume 15% of your fat calories in the form of a fish oil supplement, you would need to be consuming 33 gms, or 2 tablespoons. This much fish oil can cause bleeding problems, as well as increased inflammation due to the extreme sensitivity of DHA to oxidation damage. This is because it only contains the Omega 3 essential fats, with none of the Omega 6 fats. So, you can overdose on fish oil alone.
Furthermore, your body doesn’t only need Omega 3 fats, which is what is in fish oil. Your body also needs undamaged Omega 6 fats, because these two Omega fats are required together, to maintain the balance of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) in your body.