What’s so great about fish oil? My doc tells me omega 3s are important, but I get lots of omega fats from nuts and seeds, and those are a lot cheaper than a $60 bottle of dead, rotting fish. Is there real science behind it, and what kind do you recommend?

Bottle of dead, rotting fish huh?  What a visual that is.  Your doctor is right in telling you that omega-3’s are important as they are considered “essential fatty acids” which means our body cannot create them so we need to find them in food.  It’s true, omega-3 fatty acids (FA) can be found in fish oil, nuts, and seeds.  However, “omega-3 fatty acids” refers to a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids and just like with any family…not everyone plays nice.

Of the 11 most common omega-3 FA, most of the available research has honed in on the effects of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Here’s where the distinction begins: ALA is found in nuts and seeds (and vegetable oils) but EPA and DHA are only found in fish.  Although the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion efficiency is very low so obtaining EPA and DHA from external sources is recommended.

Another aspect to consider is omega-6 FA content.  In case you’re curious, the omega-3 vs omega-6 naming has to do with their chemical structure and where its double-bond is (3rd carbon vs 6th carbon).  Research shows that omega-6 FA has a pro-inflammatory effect on the body.  This directly conflicts with the anti-inflammatory benefits that omega-3 FA provides.  And since that’s not bad enough, omega-6 FA also competes with the ALA EPA/DHA conversion pathway I mentioned earlier.  Like ALA, omega-6 FA is found in nuts and seeds (and vegetable oils) so if you’re looking into fish oil for its heart health and anti-inflammation benefits, you’re better off looking specifically for EPA and DHA.  I’ve read quite a few articles focusing on ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratios (5:1, 3:1, 1:1) but with the high prevalence of vegetable oils in the US diet, it would be simpler to just think of increasing your omega-3 intake.

Some of the researched benefits of omega-3 consumption: cancer prevention (research not conclusive), cardiovascular disease (research is promising but considerable conflict exists), inflammation (the strongest case research-wise), mental health (decent research findings that connect EPA and depression), and brain function (DHA is the most abundant omega-3 FA in the brain).

Personally, I find it easier to take a supplement as I don’t frequently eat fish and supplements are less contaminated with heavy metals.

Author: Tony Scartozzi

Tony Scartozzi was born and raised in a small town in Eastern Washington. After moving to Seattle in 2001, he attended Bastyr University and graduated with a degree in Nutrition. Driven by his passion for public health, his career has spanned the nonprofit sector, senior housing resources, food service training, and now works for a nutraceutical company that produces market-leading plant extracts used for supplemental health. Observing the severe disparity between advertisement spin and research-based knowledge, Tony has spent many years trying to identify and reconcile the difference. With Tony’s parents’ age beginning to show, his desire to investigate health-related topics has become a very personal one.

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