Fish oil is one of the richest sources of two omega-3 essential fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Other essential fatty acids found in some vegetable oils are alpha-linolenic acid or ALA and gamma-linolenic acid or GLA. Omega-3 is found in the tissues of cold water fatty fish. It is also available as a supplement for those who eat little or no fish. The different types of fish that are a good source of oil and are commonly found include mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, swordfish, oysters, albacore tuna, red tuna, turbot, anchovies and salmon. The quality of the fish oil depends much on the type of fish from which the oil is extracted.
Among the health benefits of fish oil we find a valuable aid for weight loss and during pregnancy. Fish oil also can help fertility and skin care. It is useful in the treatment of various heart diseases, high cholesterol, anxiety, depression, strengthening of the immune system, inflammation, arthritis, cancer and diabetes among other ailments.
Most of the health benefits of fish oil can be attributed to the presence of its essential fatty acids.
The group of fats known as Omega-3 fatty acids is well documented for its health benefits. The term Omega-3 refers very often to a group of fatty acids, the best known of which are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are found in cold water fatty fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is primarily found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds, although evidence suggests that the human body can not use ALA as efficiently as DHA and EPA.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for many aspects of our health but most of us do not consume enough. This does not necessarily mean that we should start chugging fish oil in large quantities.
The source from which they derive is very important and, with certain fish oil supplements, there may be some problems.
Omega-3s (from high quality sources) have many advantages.
The University of Maryland Medical Center explains that Omega-3 fatty acids in fish can be useful for:
- Reduced risk of heart disease and causes of death associated with heart disease
- Decreased severity of symptoms associated with diabetes
- Relieve the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis
- Reduction of the risk of osteoporosis and bone weakening
- Improve health and reduce symptoms for people with autoimmune diseases
- Help people with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder
- Reduction of the risk of various types of cancer
- Improve cognitive function
As already mentioned, there are two main types of Omega-3:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), present in some vegetable oils, nuts and some green leafy vegetables.
- The other type, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in cold water fatty fish.
Our body can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA but it is not very efficient in doing this, so it is important to consume also direct sources of EPA / DHA. These nutrients are especially recommended during pregnancy and lactation (and are in most prenatal vitamins) because only some forms of DHA are transferred through the placenta.
Omega-3 and Omega-6
Omega-3s are very important, but what's even more important is the right balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats. This relationship is the most confusing factor in fish oil research.
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are considered polyunsaturated fats because they have many double bonds.
In general, we need much lower amounts of these fats than those of other fats such as saturated and monounsaturated ones, which are also of vital importance.
Our body is not able to produce polyunsaturated fats, so we must obtain them from the diet (hence the name "essential fatty acids").
Omega-6 fats are found in many packaged foods, vegetable oils, processed grains and soy. These promote inflammation while Omega-3 fats can help reduce it.
Since n-6 fats are present in many industrial food products, it is easy to see why many of us consume too many of them from the diet.
It is estimated that the ideal ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats is around 1: 1 (and not more than 4: 1).
Most people consume much higher amounts of Omega-6 fats (up to 30: 1). Too high amounts of Omega-6, causing inflammation, can lead to serious diseases.
There are two ways to correct this relationship: increase the consumption of Omega-3 and reduce the consumption of Omega-6.
The source is very important
Omega-3 (like all nutrients) are best obtained from a correct diet. Researches document an evident inverse relationship between fish consumption and heart disease, meaning, the more fish you eat, the lower the rate of heart disease and the causes of death associated with it. The integration with fish oil can compensate for the lack of essential fatty acids due to a diet poor in fish.
Several studies indicate that fish oil reduces heart disease. Other studies show that the integration of fish oil is good for the brain while others still say that fish oil helps improve insulin sensitivity reducing the risk of diabetes.
However, the fact remains that a balanced diet plays an important role in an adequate intake of essential fatty acids.
Obtaining health benefits does not just mean taking a fish oil supplement, but also reducing the consumption of Omega-6. This is one of the reasons why it is good to eliminate refined vegetable oils and margarine from your diet.
The best source of fish oil?
This may seem obvious, but the best source of fish oil is fat fish! High consumption of quality fatty fish (such as sardines) is the most important beneficial source of Omega-3s.
When the budget is limited or the integration with fish oil is not appreciated enough, eating "affordable fish" is an excellent solution. Fatty fish is in fact rich in essential fatty acids, it is easily available and within everyone's reach (anchovies, sardines, mackerel and cod).
That said, some people do not like or do not eat enough fish. In these cases, the integration with fish oil can be useful, depending on the source and the dosage.
Fish oil supplements are increasingly popular, and those from whole cold water fish should be preferred, ensuring they are of the highest quality and absolutely free of any contaminants.
Fish oil supplements
Fish oil supplements are not all the same.
Some types of fish oil contain altered forms of Omega-3s and can easily cause inflammation in the body instead of fighting it.
Some Omega-3 supplements are in an ethyl ester form, generating an altered form which is obtained when ethanol is fused with the fish oil. This creates an extremely pure concentrate of fish oil, but not sufficiently bioavailable. The fish oils thus obtained are often difficult to digest and can easily oxidise. The real difference, however, is found in the low digestibility.
The natural form of triglycerides breaks down into the small intestine and can be easily absorbed. Fish oils in the form of ethyl ester are much more difficult to metabolise for the body and are not easily absorbed once they are broken down.
The natural form of triglyceride (TG) is also purified but remains in a form that the body recognises and can easily digest. This oil can be taken without food, it does not become rancid and does not have strong odor.
- Omega-3 in the natural form of triglycerides
- Balanced doses of EPA and DHA
- Sustainable source (the quantities of krill are decreasing, so we prefer sources such as anchovies or sardines that are more sustainable)
- Free of contaminants and heavy metals
- At least 2 grams of concentrated omega-3 without having to swallow a handful of pills
- The omega 3 supplement that meets these criteria does not have a fishy aftertaste.
Fish oils and Omega-3: in short
We know that eating fish is good. Studies confirm a strong link between fish consumption and a longer life and reduced risk of heart disease. Much of the medical community has suggested eating fish and seafood for years and research confirms this. In the light of recent concerns about the toxicity of heavy metals and the pollution of the seas, it is important to choose high quality fish. Sardines are an excellent source of Omega-3, they are cheap and easy to eat, even while traveling.
Most fish oil supplements use sardine as a source. Therefore, when you cannot (or do not want to) eat real fish, use quality supplements!
It is also important to pay attention to the relationship between the Omega-3s and Omega-6s we consume. In addition to an adequate consumption of Omega-3s, we should also watch out the amount of Omega-6s that we ingest and work towards a more balanced relationship between these two fatty acids.
At the end of the day, a healthy and balanced diet with fewer processed foods (with vegetable oils) is the road leading to better health!