We are often told that we should eat oily fish or take a fish oil supplement, but why? When? Which one do you choose?
Why do you need fish oil?
Although maligned by the weight loss industry, dietary fats exist for a reason. They are present in plant and animal tissue because they perform vital functions for those organisms and, when we consume them, they do the same for us. The body needs to ingest or synthesise a ready supply to maintain health. Some lipids are even essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through diet. There are many different forms of lipids, one of the most crucial subsets are the essential fatty acids (EFAs), omega-3 and omega-6.
Some anthropologists believe consumption of omega-3 fats lead to profound changes in the human brain. We probably evolved on a 1:1 ratio of omega 3:6 in our diets (1). Post agricultural and industrial revolutions, this has dramatically switched in favour of omega-6 and is now closer to 16:1. Balancing omega-3 and 6 fats is crucial for the management of many chronic diseases. Oils from cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel have been the subject of thousands of research papers, showing efficacy for a number of conditions. They provide a rich source of the active omega-3 fats, eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Vegetarian sources of omega-3 require further conversion in order to metabolise EPA and DHA.
The most obvious way to tackle the shortfall in dietary omega-3 is to consume more oily fish. Individual taste is often a barrier. Furthermore, the beneficial long chain omega-3 fats can be damaged by cooking and the larger fish such as salmon can contain high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. Therefore fish oil supplementation presents a practical way to increase omega-3 intake, but not all fish oil products are created equally.
When choosing a product it is important to be sure that it has been produced with due regard to environmental impact, has an exemplary quality profile and is effective.
To maintain healthy levels of essential fats, the government recommends that we all eat at least two portions of oily fish each week but this can be difficult to achieve through diet alone, especially if you don’t like to eat fish! A good quality fish oil supplement can be a great option to ensure levels are high enough to maintain good health.
How do you know if a supplement is good quality?
Here are a few tips when looking for a good quality fish oil supplement:
- Look for a fish oil supplement that is produced from small fish such as anchovies and sardines as the levels of essential fats within these fish are naturally more concentrated. You will therefore get better quality oil.
- Look at where the fish are sourced. Small fish sourced from areas such as the clear pacific waters will drastically minimise the level of pollutants. This will mean you will get cleaner, more pure oil.
- Look for oil that has had minimal processing. Fatty acids are delicate and can become damaged when put through aggressive production methods. If minimal heat and chemicals are used, the oil will be closer to its natural form.
- Look for variety. If fish oil is pure and clean, then it can be made into capsules and liquids that have very little fishy aftertaste. Some fish oils can even be mixed with fruit bases so that adults and children can enjoy taking a daily supplement.
1. Simopoulos AP Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega 6/omega 3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases. Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy 60 (2006) 502-507.