Fish Oil: Sink or Swim?
You might hear a lot of recommendations about fish oil. Let’s talk about why you might be hearing that and why algae oil might be a better alternative. (If you’re not interested in the science, scroll down to the section titled Algae Oil and Sustainability to find out why algae oil is a better alternative and how to find the right one for you.)
Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Precision Nutrition (PN), who certifies me as a nutrition coach and whose software (ProCoach) I use for online nutrition coaching, used to recommend that all of their clients start taking a fish oil supplement immediately upon starting their nutrition program. A few years ago, they stopped this recommendation because people seemed to be resistant to being told what to do. It had seemed like an easy habit to get people started, but people didn’t know why they should take it. I mean, do I really need it? Really?
So why did PN recommend fish oil in the first place? Fish oil is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, especially two types known as DHA and EPA. Omega-3 fatty acids are impossible for our bodies to make, so we need to get them from food sources. Another omega-3, ALA, can be found in plant foods like flaxseed oil. Our bodies can convert APA into EPA and then into DHA if we don’t get enough DHA, but it is way more efficient to get DHA directly from the source.
Omega-3s are good for your brain. They help the fluids in your brain remain, well, fluid so that neurotransmitters can have an easier time communicating. If your diet is too high in saturated fat (which is solid at room temperature) and too low in unsaturated fats like omega-3s, the fluid in your brain can actually start to solidify. This means that neurotransmitters can have trouble picking up chemicals like serotonin, which helps regulate your mood. DHA is especially important for brain health. Higher concentrations of DHA correlate with better memory retention, decreased risk of Alzheimer's, and decreased depression and aggression. So next time that guy at Starbucks yells at the barista for forgetting the whipped cream, tell him, “Go take a fish pill.”
It looks like Leslie could use more omega-3s in her life
Omega-3s can also help with metabolic disorders, which is most likely one reason why Precision Nutrition started recommending it in the first place. One 2017 review of the literature found that though insulin sensitivity wasn’t improved among healthy individuals or those who already had Type 2 Diabetes, “among participants with metabolic disorders, fish oil supplementation could reduce the risk of insulin resistance by 47%.” Metabolic disorders include pre-diabetes, which means fish oil can be helpful in preventing diabetes in those who are at greater risk.
Finally, the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids (absorbed from plant oils such as olive oil) is as important as the amount of fatty acids we have in our bodies. According to PN:
Humans developed on diets consisting of marine life, wild game and/or inland plants. This type of diet provided sufficient omega-3 fats, which resulted in an omega-6/omega-3 ratio that was around 1:1. The current North American diet provides a ratio that is around 16 to 20:1 (omega-6:omega-3). This is likely due to the shift in dietary staples, which generally do not include foods like flax, hemp, walnuts, perilla, green leafy veggies, chia, fish and algae.
So what’s the big deal? A 2016 study published in the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health explains that a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio correlates with obesity and systemic inflammation.
With all that evidence, it seems like a natural choice to include a fish oil supplement in your daily routine. However, with the prevalence of over-fishing, fish oil isn’t the most responsible place to get your omega-3s. Fortunately, there’s another option: algae oil.
The reason that fish oil is so high in DHA is because fish feed on algae, which is the primary source of DHA. The DHA in algae oil tends to be well-absorbed by humans, with a study of 46 vegans who were given Life’s DHA and APA supplement (sourced from farmed algae) showing an increase in the omega-3 index from below (which is too low) to over 4%.
From the Source: Fig. 2. The effects of 254 mg/d of omega-3 fatty acids in 46 vegan subjects on the omega-3. The omega-3 index and other selected blood fatty acids measured before (black) and after (gray) 12 weeks of supplementation. Abbreviations: EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid; DHA, docosahexaenoic acid; DPA; docosapentaenoic acid; ALA, alpha-linolenic acid; LA, linoleic acid; ARA, arachidonic acid; Omega-3 Index, the sum of EPA + DHA. *p < 0.05; **p < 0.001.
Notice how much more linoleic acid (LA) the participants had versus the omega-3 index. LA is an omega-6 fatty acid. This demonstrates the high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 acids mentioned above.
Algae Oil and Sustainability
Algae oil has the advantage of not hurting the planet. In a 2014 article, “Toward Sustainable Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Production,” the authors describe the health benefits of omega-3s and our need for sustainable commercial development. They explain that most omega-3 fish sources are sourced from “small fatty fish caught in coastal waters.” This is not sustainable as these fish are also a food source for wild fish and are used in fish meal. (Yes, this means farmers are using fish to feed other fish because fish are fucking cannibals.) The article goes on to explain that algae farming can meet the needs of consumers without depleting the oceans. Also, that there have been some strains of algae in which 80% of their dry weight has been found to consist of lipids (another word for fats).
Plus, less mercury! Yay!
So I should take algae oil? Sure! Unless you have a bleeding disorder or are on blood thinners. Omega-3s can thin the blood, so they can compound any problems you already have. If you are able to take algae oil and are interested in such, PN recommends you take 1-2 grams of algae oil per day, split into 2 servings. (This is higher than the recommended dose on most bottles, but is the way to get the right amount of DHA and EPA for your body.)
Make sure you check for contaminants in the algae oils you’re considering by researching the brands on a supplement-review site like Labdoor. You can start by checking their list of vegan omega-3 sources. Even without signing up for a Labdoor account, which I’d recommend if you’re a nutritionist who is recommending supplements, you can find out the Labdoor results for each brand's label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy.
And, of course, talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet. Some supplements can interact with medicines you're taking. Only your doctor is qualified to tell you if a supplement is right for you.
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