The question is simple, yet the answer is exceedingly complex. Like many questions in human nutrition, the simpler the answer, the greater the exclusion of the facts.
So put on your rain boots, dig out those old dirty work clothes, and let’s dive on into that murky pool of convolution where science actually resides. I promise this is a journey worth taking.
(10 min read)
Let’s start with the basics:
Plant vs. Animal Omega 3s
The reason fish has won the title of “essential” in many circles is its high omega 3 content. Omega 3s have a few sub-categories, ALA, EPA, and DHA. Fish is well known for its high concentration of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), these two omega-3 fats are the ones that have made fish so famous in the world of dietetics. Plants actually have much higher concentrations of omega 3s per gram in most cases, but their fat is primarily comprised of a different form, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These ALA fats, or plant-omega 3s, are a sort of universal currency that the body can convert to EPA or DHA as needed, but the body is limited in its ability to do so. Many say the body’s ability to produce DHA from plant sources is insufficient. The bottom line is that plant-omega 3’s might not be able to supply the full range of omega 3s needed for human health.
This is the basis of the argument in support of fish being essential, and the engine of a $2 billion+ annual fish oil industry; that the consumption of preformed EPA and DHA from animal sources is necessary for health.
The Problem with Fish Oil
Besides being one of the most ecologically unsustainable industries ever conceived, and that the entire fish is used up in the oil production process with regards to human consumption, it is also not the nutritional silver bullet it claims to be.
By the time your fish oil hits your cabinet, there is a good chance it has already gone rancid. A small, very recent study, showed that a whopping 95% of Norwegian fish oil was rancid by the time it hit consumer hands. For reference, Norway controls 40% of the entire fish oil industry. Other producers seem to be just as concerning, with New Zealand and South African fish oil showing that 80-85% held oxidation levels that exceed the regulatory standards. The net effect of consuming this rancid oil is increased inflammation, atherosclerosis (which is the most common precursor to heart disease and increased blood pressure), and organ damage. This is absolutely frightening for the person who is recommended fish oil by a doctor or dietician for the treatment of blood pressure and heart disease, when the supplement could very well worsen these very conditions.
There is also a known and accepted contamination of fish oil by industrial pollutants and toxins like PCBs and dioxins; the scourge of the modern environment. So pervasive are these contaminants in fish oil that FDA simply set up regulations to establish tolerable intake levels rather than banning supplements found to contain them. In other words, if you eat fish or take fish oil you will be taking in PCBs and Dioxins, at tolerable levels yes, but should something really be touted as an immaculate health food when it is all but guaranteed to contain trace levels of known toxic substances? Just some food for thought.
How do Fish get their Omega 3s?
There is a redundancy you will see in my blog posts, because there is also a redundancy in nature. When we consume foods we are outsourcing our metabolism. Ideally we could just drink water and process sunshine, instead we allow plants to do that second part for us, and we absorb the glorious carbohydrates, fats, and proteins they produce in the process. This is the way of the animal kingdom. Plants, and ultimately the soil, are the external metabolism of the animals. Omega 3s are no different; EPA and DHA are no different. They are produced by plants; in this case algae. You
can eat the fish that ate the algae, or you can eat the algae directly. Interestingly, the fish that are hailed as the ultimate source of omega 3s actually have less enzymatic capacity to produce EPA and DHA omega 3s than we do. In fact, they have no capacity whatsoever. The algae they eat supply EPA and DHA so abundantly that fish never had to develop the requisite enzymes.
Whether you take a fish oil or choose an alternative algae supplement for your EPA and DHA fats, the choice is a bit of an illusion. The source, in actuality, is always algae. Remember, if you go far enough back everything you eat is just processed sunshine.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Supply Enough Omega-3?
Meat-eaters, plant-eaters, and everyone in between; no one is getting enough omega 3. The problem is that the modern food environment is saturated in omega-6 oils. The seed-oils that the processed food companies love so much, like corn, soy, sunflower, and cottonseed oil, all contain large amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6s that compete for the same absorptive receptor as the anti-inflammatory omega-3s. As we eat crackers, chips, and pretty much everything processed, we lower our body’s ability to absorb omega 3s. The only solution for this problem is something we’ve known for decades, yet only recently have we attempted to reattain it; a whole foods diet. The higher the whole foods intake, the higher the omega-3 absorption. Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, canola and olive oil, and even berries, kiwi, and other fruit are all the key to an adequate intake.
In my research preparing for this blog post i came across an interesting study that followed meat eaters, vegetarians, and fish-heavy meat-eaters and their blood levels of EPA and DHA omega 3s over time. Something very interesting cropped up that showed the non-animal consuming group dramatically increased their ability to produce DHA fat versus the omnivorous groups. What does this mean? This is an early indication that plant-based dieters adapt to the low level of DHA and EPA fat in their diet by increasing their ability to produce more, and it is an indication that earlier studies on the body’s ability to produce DHA are likely flawed as they do not take this into account. Some encouraging food for thought.
Plant-based dieters or otherwise, we should all consume whole foods like broccoli, kale, chia seeds, and hemp seeds for omega 3s. I also recommend an algae supplement for the high DHA content; spirulina, or other seaweeds like kelp or klamath will all do the job, and an algae oil will have even greater amounts. The key is to pick one up and start consuming it regularly. After all, fish rely on these supplements as well.
As always, thanks for reading.
And good luck in your journey to become healthier,
Albert, Benjamin B. et al. Fish oil supplements in New Zealand are highly oxidised and do not meet label content of n-3 PUFA. Scientific Reports 5 (2015). Article ID 7928 (2015). doi:10.1038/srep07928. Epub 21 Jan. 2015.
Opperman M, Benade S. Analysis of the omega-3 fatty acid content of South African fish oil supplements: a follow-up study. Cardiovascular Journal of Africa. 2013 Sep; 24(8):297-302. doi: 10.5830/CVJA-2013-074.
Omega-3: ALA intakes enough for EPA/DPA levels for non-fish eaters?