This is a super important subject … life changing actually because who hasn’t had a run-in with fish oil? Should I take it? Should I not? What’s a good source? Can you actually ferment it? Does it go rancid? How much should I take? Will it make my breath stink and do I even need it?
It shouldn’t and yes … yes you do.
You should be on it. Your child should be on it. Your neighbor’s best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s mother should be on it and everyone else in between … unless of course, you’re drowning in fatty fish or are having an affair with an avocado (in which case, we’ll look the other way).
While you’re thinking about your love for fish, let me establish some very basic info about FAT. There are three types of fat: saturated fats, trans fats, and unsaturated fats. There are two types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. There are three types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3, 6, and 9 fats, and there are three types of fatty acids that make up omega-3 fats.
You need the omega-3 fats that come from fish or fish oil because your body can’t make these itself. Now, I know what you’re thinking …
“I am a vegetarian. My diet is loaded with fat.”
“I’m doing keto, yo.”
“I eat eggs and meat on the regular.”
To which I say … you’re still deficient in omega-3 fats.
Your diet might look good on paper, but if you are relying on fat sources (albeit “healthy”) that don’t contain omega-3s or are inefficient at converting the fatty acids those plant-based fats contain into usable DHA and EPA, you’re getting way too much of the wrong kind of good fat.
What happens if you don’t get enough omega-3 fats? You could die.
[Insert crickets chirping here.]
The Benefits of Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids contain: ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). EPA and DHA are the main fatty acids you get from fish oil.
DHA makes up 8% of your brain weight and is essential for brain function, cognitive performance, memory, learning ability, vision, fetal development, school performance, and neural tissue. EPA pays an important role in inflammation and ALA is mainly used for energy metabolism and is found in your plant-based fats.
Omega-3 fats have been proven to increase muscle mass, improve muscle composition, and anabolic response, reduce cortisol levels, decrease pain and inflammation, improve PCOS and chronic inflammatory diseases (like crohn’s, colitis, lupus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis), prevent depression and ADHD, give your skin that glow-stick glow, benefit the cardiovascular system, ward off strokes, protect your nerves from damage, promote weight loss, help your neurons fire, regulate your hormones, protect your DNA, and pretty much everything else in between saving the planet and preserving the human race.
What can’t fish oil do? Nothing … because it does everything.
The Problem with Plant-based Omega-3s
Since your body can’t manufacture omega-3 fatty acids itself, you have to either get them from your diet or supplements. Now you can eat a ton of nuts and seeds that contain ALA which the body can convert to EPA and DHA … but you’re still not going to meet your quota, it’s not exactly healthy to binge on nuts, many people are inefficient at converting ALA to DHA and EPA, and the linoleic acid (omega-6) competes with ALA (omega-3) for the same enzymes. Did you get that?
If you’re relying soley on plants for your fat, you’re consuming large amounts of omega-6 fats, you’re relying on ALA to be converted to EPA and DHA, and it’s not highly bioavailable (because it’s competing for enzymes and has to be converted).
Why You Need An Ideal Ratio of Omega fats
First off, you need to know that omega 6 and 9 fats are NOT bad. In the right amount, they’re good. The problem is when you consume too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3s. Most people have a ratio of 14-25 times omega-6 to omega-3 fats. This would be GREAT if the ideal ratio weren’t 2 to 1.
You need twice as many omega-3 fats or you’re setting yourself up for all sorts of inflammatory conditions and you will uptake 6 and 9 fats over what little DHA/EPA you’re getting. You’ll literally shift from the anti-inflammatory side of the spectrum towards pro-inflammatory diseases. I’m not making this up.
The western diet is characterized by an excessive amount of omega-6 fats and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio. […] The increased intake of saturated fatty acids and omega-6 essential fatty acids and the reduced consumption of foods containing omega-3 fatty acid, (which may exert anti-inflammatory properties) is thought to promote the pathogenesis of many inflammatory-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
Translation: If you have more omega-3 fats in your diet than omega-6 fats, you’re going to suppress inflammation and reap the benefits of omega-3s. If you are drowning in omega-6 fats, you’ll promote inflammation and increase your risk factors for any number of health issues. (This is something to especially watch out for if you’re on a Keto or Paleo diet, which emphasizes “good fats” but not the omega-3 fat ratio.)
So, How do you balance the omega 3-6-9 ratio?
- Limit processed foods and avoid hydrogenated oil, canola, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils.
- When you cook with olive or sesame oil (because you’re ditching all of the above oils), utilize the lowest heat possible to reduce oxidation.
- Cook with coconut oil instead of vegetable oils if your diet is too high in omega-6 fats.
- Replace whatever butter you’re using with grass-fed butter (which is higher in omega-3).
- When you do eat fat, make sure you’re not only eating “good fats,” but you’re balancing your omega-3 ratio.
- Incorporate fish into your diet or fish oil supplements.
Coconut oil is an entirely different fat altogether and it’s all sorts of amazing, but it doesn’t contain omega-3 fats. If coconut oil is all you’re consuming, you’ll reap the benefits of all the things coconut has to offer, while being deficient in omega-3s.
If you’re relying on flax seeds and chia for your omega-3 fats, you’re only converting about 8% to use. That’s not enough. You would have to eat a truckload of chia seeds to even come close to meeting your quota.
If you’re using nuts as your fat source, you’re flooding your body with 4-22x the omega-6 fats as you are omega-3 fats, and if you’re relying on plants for pretty much everything, you’re only getting trace amounts of what you need.
Use this chart as a quick reference for where your fats fall into. If you’re eating mostly from the omega-3 category and you’re doing a fish oil supplement, you’re probably good. If you’re only eating from the other two categories and you’re not supplementing … death. (Yes, I’m drawing an extreme reference to get my point across, please don’t email me about this.)
Should You Supplement with Omega-3 Fats?
No … unless you’re diet isn’t perfect, you’re pregnant, nursing, working out, doing Keto/Paleo/Macro dieting, consuming processed foods, have big muscles, little muscles, or have any health issue whatsoever.
Obviously, getting your omega-3 fats straight from the fish is the way to go. The only problem is that much of the fish that’s commercially available is farmed or contaminated. If you’re a fish expert, no doubt you can get around this and source yourself something good. If you’re like the rest of us or you simply don’t like fish, you’ll be getting on a legit supplement.
How to Supplement with Fish Oil
Fish oil is a type of polyunsaturated fat that oxidizes (becomes rancid) quickly and isn’t stable for very long at room temperature. Many fish oil supplements are mass-produced from nasty fish, go rancid before they even make it to you, don’t meet the minimum standards, or don’t have the DHA/EPA levels the company claims they do.
Studies done in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and Norway have shown that 80%-95% of oils tested exceed peroxide levels consistent with rancidity. As an oil becomes rancid, it’s DHA and EPA levels decrease and it develops a rotten fish smell and taste. This is why you should never just pick up a random fish oil supplement (at a drug store or anywhere else), should open a capsule to taste/smell it before consuming, and should should refrigerate.
Here’s what you should look for in a good fish oil supplement:
You want a fish oil that is high quality/pure, free of heavy metals and pollutants, extra virgin (if possible), thoroughly tested, properly processed, meets industry standards and international fish oil standards, has a certificate of analysis, contains adequate levels of EPA and DHA, is highly bioavailable, and made by a company that is transparent about their practices.
If that seems like a lot … it is, but when it comes to fish oil you can’t mess around. If you focus simply on cost, you’re going to get a cheap, rancid supplement that will make whatever you have worse.
Fermented Cod Liver Oil
A few years ago, a major controversy broke out over fermented cod liver oil (something I was actually using at the time). Everyone LOVED them some fermented cod liver oil until a report raised some serious concerns. One side produced a report showing that batches made were often rancid, were lower in essential fatty acids and vitamins than claimed, were derived from off-label fish, and called the whole fermentation process into question.
Smart people came out on both sides for and against the report. I read them all and came to the conclusion that there were issues with the report, with the products, with the company, and conflicts of interest all around. Quite frankly, I don’t mess with anything I can’t conclusively believe in or verify the quality of. So, fermented cod liver oil is off the table for me and if I wouldn’t take it myself, I wouldn’t recommend it to you.
What you should use instead:
There are a few good options when it comes to purchasing fish oil. As a matter of principle, I avoid commercial fish oils, fish oils marketed to children, gummy fish oils, overly flavored oils, and pharmaceutical and drug store fish oils.
- Tip: To get the most out of your fish oil, take it with a meal that contains fat to increase absorption (especially if it is not in triglyceride form) and combine with selenium (which is all sorts of amazing).
Here are a few omega-3 supplements that meet my standards
- Omega 3 Innovations – Omega 3 sources Norwegian cod, inspects every batch of livers, utilizes sustainable practices that minimize oxidation, publishes their peroxide number (and other scores), and provides you with the peroxide and anisidine values of each batch of oil they send you.
- Nordic Naturals – Nordic Naturals produces fish oil in highly absorbable triglyceride form, tests every batch of fish oil to ensure it meets purity standards, and publishes their Certificate of Analysis online. They adhere to the European Pharmacopoeia Standard, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED), the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) program, World Health Organization (WHO) fish oil monograph, and California’s Proposition 65 (PROP 65). Nordic Naturals make many different varieties – my favorite being the Ultimate Omega, Arctic Cod Liver Oil, and Prenatal fish oil.
- Viva Naturals Omega-3 Ultra Strength Fish Oil – Viva Naturals uses supercritical extraction to concentrate the omega-3s in their oil (so you’re getting more DHA and EPA per serving), use a triglyceride form to increase absorption, and are IFOS-5 certified (which is the highest ranking for purity). They source small ocean fish (like sardines and mackerals) from Peru because they contain high levels of omega-3s and fewer toxins. They also make a krill oil supplement.
- Udo’s Oil – If you MUST have an omega supplement that is vegetarian or you’re on a low-fat diet (and think you might actually be low in all omega categories), Udo’s Oil has a 2:1 ratio omega-3, 6, 9 blend with DHA.
Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Omega-3 fats are kind of a big deal. Now it’s your turn, do you take a fish oil supplement? If not, did this make you rethink your decision? Let me know in the comments below!