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Omega 3 – which is best: fish or plants?

What are Omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids, also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development. Omega-3 fats include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are typically found in fish and fish oil. Some plant-based foods, including flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds, also contain omega-3 in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which also helps heart health.

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Why is Omega 3 good for you?

Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for human health, but our bodies can’t make them. Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil can help lower triglycerides, cholesterol and blood pressure. Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may help with other conditions, including improving immune function, allergic reactions, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, asthma, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease and many more.

Problems with fish oil supplements and fish consumption

When I was a kid, the main source of fish in my diet was occasional ‘fish and chips’ (typically on a Friday night), with the fish being shark-meat (‘flake’) fried in batter; tinned sardines, or tuna casserole. ‘Fish oil’ was unknown as a dietary supplement then, and it was only relatively recently that fish oil became marketed as an essential part of a healthy diet.

Fish and Krill oil supplements are big business, and are the main dietary source of omega 3 fatty acids for most people. Sales of fish oil supplements reached $1.1 billion in the U.S. in 2010, up 11%, according to Nutrition Business Journal. A report by a market research firm in 2012 predicted that global retail omega 3 sales was predicted to reach $34.7 billion by 2016.

But before we all swallow the line that fish oil is some sort of ‘super food’, is there a downside? The short answer is ‘yes’ – there are many problems with consuming fish and fish oil!

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High Fish diets do no favors for your heart

A Forbes Magazine article  referred to a large study conducted at McMaster University which raised questions about whether consumption of fish oil has any effect on preventing heart attacks at all. In this large study, the 6,281 patients who took fish oil were no more or less likely to die from cardiovascular causes than the 6,255 who received a placebo. The study found that consumption of fish oil did not lead to fewer heart attacks, fewer strokes, fewer hospitalizations for heart problems, fewer stent procedures, or less chest pain.

According to a study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, diets high in fish do not promote a healthy heart, and may increase risk of heart disease.

The diets and health of Eskimos and Inuits in Greenland and North America were analysed by researchers in a review of ten different studies. Researchers found that Eskimos in Greenland have similar rates of heart disease, an overall mortality rate twice as high, and a life expectancy 10 years shorter, compared with non-Eskimos. Compared with non-native populations, North American Inuits have similar if not higher rates of heart disease.

The authors conclusion was that an “Eskimo diet” has previously been wrongly identified as heart healthy and that such a high-fat diet is better labelled dangerous.

Melissa Breyer from the Mother Nature Network writes: “although many studies link consumption of fish oil to reduced depression, a 2011 meta-analysis by Yale University researchers debunked the idea that omega-3s alleviate the blues.”

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Increased fish and fish oil consumption increases prostate cancer risk

Men who eat fatty fish or take fish oil supplements have a 71 per cent higher risk for dangerous high-grade prostate cancer, according to research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. This research was widely reported in the Melbourne Age, the Herald Sun, and ABC Science online.

In 2011 the same team of researchers published similar findings, that high blood concentrations of DHA more than doubled the risk of prostate cancer.

According to Ian Olver, chief executive of the Australian Cancer Council:

“The reality is that if something is good for you, it doesn’t mean that 10 times of it is better. It is unlikely someone would be diagnosed with a deficiency of fish oil. There is a view out there that extra vitamins and antioxidants are good for you. And people take more thinking that more is better.”

Fish oil won’t make your baby brainer

It has been thought that omega-3 fatty acids, consumed via oily fish or in fish oil capsules, could possibly boost fetal brain development in the womb.

However, research indicates that pregnant women taking fish oil supplements don’t improve their baby’s brain function or intelligence.

In this study, researchers led by Maria Makrides of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide analyzed date gathered from 300 families in which the mothers had consumed 800 milligrams of an omega-3 supplement per day during their pregnancy.

The study authors compared results from the children of mothers who hadn’t taken the supplements with the children of those who had. Crucially, by the time they reached the age of 4, boys and girls born to the group taking the supplements showed no advantage when it came to language, memory, problem-solving and/or reasoning skills, according to the researchers.

Dr. Catherine Herway, assistant director of maternal-fetal medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City, was quoted in an online article as saying:

“It is very appealing to say to a woman that if she takes a pill every day, her baby will become smarter. The reality is that despite all of our advancements in modern science, the best advice remains the same: To optimize maternal and fetal health, there remains no substitute for a well-balanced diet.”

There are several potential pitfalls with using fish oil, including:

  • Fish oil may contain toxins and contaminants that have accumulated in the environment, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, PCBs and dioxins.
  • Fish oil supplements may cause nausea, diarrhea, loose stools, decreased appetite, constipation, vomiting and fat in the stool.
  • Fish oil has a limited shelf-life, and may become rancid (researchers at New Zealand’s Crop and Food Research Institute tested capsules from an array of brands from countries all over the world and discovered that a majority of the capsules they tested had begun to oxidize).
  • Some people have fish or shellfish allergies.
  • Regular consumption of fish oil can cause unpleasant fish breath or “fish burps”.
  • Over-fishing of target species and krill for oil production can seriously deplete fish stocks and food for other marine animals. For example, an April 2011 article published by “Nutra Ingredients” reported that some penguin populations have fallen 50 per cent due to a fall in the availability of krill.

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Plant sources of Omega 3

As a vegan, I do not eat fish or take fish oil. So, if I don’t get my omega 3 fats from fish or fish oil, then where from?

Flaxseed (flax) is the richest source of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) containing 50 – 60% omega-3 fatty acids, and lignans (powerful anti-oxidants), that researchers have found helpful in preventing heart disease, protecting against inflammatory disorders and certain cancers, and lowering your cholesterol. Flaxseeds add a mild, nutty flavour to a variety of foods and are an excellent source of fibre, high quality protein and potassium.

One of the limitations of Flaxseed Oil (apart from not being recommended for heating and cooking) is that the body has to convert its ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) into EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Some researchers think that flaxseed oil might have some of the same benefits as fish oil, but the body is not very efficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA (conversion efficiency may be as low as 5 per cent).

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Omega 3 from algae – getting it from the source

Did you know that fish don’t naturally produce omega 3? The omega 3 fatty acids obtained from fish that humans eat originally comes from the algae the fish eat. Extracting DHA and EPA omega 3 fatty acids from algae means you’re getting it straight from the source – clean and green.

There are several benefits by taking omega-3 supplements from a plant (algae) source, including:

  • You get all the benefits of fish oil omega-3, without concerns about impurities, contaminants, or of course diminishing fish stocks – this is a fully sustainable source of omega-3, and much more environmentally friendly.
  • It’s better for everyone, including vegans, vegetarians, pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Research indicates that pure algae-sourced omega-3 is more effectively absorbed by the body than fish oil.
  • The balance of DHA and EPA fatty acids is at least as good, if not better than fish oil in terms of health benefits, and superior to Flaxseed Oil.

Some brands of plant-sourced omega-3 oil I have used and recommend are Dr Fuhrman’s vegan supplement DHA+EPA PurityDeva, which is 100% vegan, vegetarian and is certified by the Vegan Society, the non-profit organization that actually invented the word “vegan”, and Opti-3.

Other brands that you may like to investigate include Green Omega 3  and Lifestream V-Omega 3 .

A final word: please follow this advice from Web MD : Before you start using any supplement, you should always discuss it with your doctor or health care provider. He or she may have specific recommendations — or warnings — depending on your health and the other medicines you take.

Tom Perry

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