Fish Oil – A Super Pill or a Hoax?
Every evening, for the past few years, my Dad would open up the medicine cabinet, retrieve his weekly pill organizer, and take a mix of vitamins. Over the years, the supplements changed, based on the newest common cold, the trends his friends mentioned, or what his cardiologist recommended. However, one always remained the same. A long, oval shaped capsule filled with a honey-colored, viscous liquid. I’m sure we’ve all seen it. Fish oil capsules.
Fish oil capsules are a source of omega-3 fatty acids. A quick Google search shows omega-3s are claimed to prevent heart disease and stroke, control arthritis, decrease risk of cancer, fight depression, improve eye health, and increase sperm quality. Even my Mom would save her salmon skin to feed to my dog in hopes of making her coat glisten.
With all these advantages touted, one would think omega-3s are the one-stop-shop, natural cure-all for any disease. But what do we really know about this seemingly superhuman supplement?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, long-chain polyunsaturated fats. Throughout human evolution, we’ve evolved to have a diet of nearly equal ratio of omega-3 fats (found in avocados, fatty fish, and flaxseed) to omega-6 fats (found in poultry, meat, nuts, and corn oil). Generally, omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation, a normal defense mechanism of the body in response to infection and damage.
As we know today, systemic immune activation is also the body’s defense mechanism against the chronic stress of an unhealthy diet, the so called metabolic endotoxemia. While acute inflammation is a normal part of homeostasis, chronic low grade inflammation plays a crucial role in many if not most of the diseases making up our chronic disease epidemic, including type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, chronic cardiovascular and liver diseases, as well as degenterative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
That’s where omega-3 fats come in. The balancing end of the beam, omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. They self-regulate excessive damage hosts could receive from higher omega-6 intake related inflammation. Don’t get it wrong, both of these fats are necessary for optimal health. Remember, we evolved to eat them equally.
“Are the honey-colored fish oil pills the one stop remedy as we originally thought?”
The modern Western diet has an average omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 15:1. We are vastly out of reach of our intended diet – hence the high prevalence of diabetes, obesity, dementia, and other inflammation-related diseases. But are the honey-colored fish oil pills the one stop remedy as we originally thought? Let’s revisit that idea.
In supplement form, omega-3s in particular are highly susceptible to oxidation, more so than other lipids. Oxidized oils can have altered biological function, rendering them ineffective at the least, or even harmful. This oxidation of omega-3s in supplement form, or fish oil pills, can be the cause of some conflicting clinical trials on the benefits of omega-3s.
Instead of supplementation, try focusing on an omega-3 rich diet instead. Opt for fatty fishes such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, anchovy, or mussels 1-2 times per week. The lower on the food chain these small fishes are coming from, the closer they are to the plants in the ocean, which are the producers of these omega-3 fatty acids, like certain forms of algae.
Incorporate flax seeds into smoothies, soups, or oatmeal. Reduce consumption of land-based meats, in particularly red meat from cows fed corn and soy, foods that are not compatible with the cows’ digestive system, resulting in systemic inflammation in these animals. Oils such as corn oil or soy which are high in omega-6s can be swapped for avocado or extra virgin olive oil.
By reducing your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, you will not only do good for your own health, but automatically for the health of the planet. Small oily fish like mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are packed with omega-3s, abundant in the oceans and not threatened by extinction like many of the most popular big fish such as tuna and swordfish.
By eating a largely plant-based diet, with meat coming from wild fish and free range, grass-fed chickens, you will be doing more to keep the right ratio between your omega-6 and -3 fatty acids without ever taking a fish oil capsule. Swap the pill for a plate (of mussels)!
Swap the pill for a plate (of anchovies)!
Emily Noronha is a student at UCLA studying Human Biology & Society and Food Studies. She’s interested in gut health, nutrition, and understanding where our food comes from.