Why fish stomps flax as a source of omega-3

salmon

I want to thank everyone for sending in their questions and voting on the next topic. The good news is that there’s a lot of interest in all of the topics I’m researching right now. The bad news is that there was no clear winner.

I’ve decided to go ahead with the series on fish and fish oil, but I may write about thyroid and diabetes simultaneously. I’m also going to experiment with shorter (although I’m clearly breaking that rule here), but more frequent, articles. Hopefully these will be easier for me to write and for you to read.

Finally, stay tuned for the first episode of The Healthy Skeptic audio podcast, coming up next week. I’ll be interviewing Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D, on the subject of obesity and weight regulation. Stephan is a senior fellow at the University of Washington studying the neurobiology of body fat regulation. He’s also the author of Whole Health Source, which is one of my favorite health related blogs.

Before we get into talking about the benefits of fish consumption, or how how much fish or fish oil you should eat, it’s probably a good idea to start with a basic review of the omega-3 fatty acids.

Essential Fatty Acids 101

A fatty acid is a chain of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms with a carboxyl group on one end. Fatty acids are classified on the basis of how many carbon atoms are in the chain, as well as how many double bonds exist within the molecule.

Fish contain a variety of fatty acids, but the ones that are believed to confer the majority of the benefits are the long-chain omega-3 fats eicosapentanaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fats are found exclusively in seafood and marine algae.

As you can see from the chart below, it is also possible for the body to synthesize EPA and DHA from the short-chain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found in plant foods such as flax, hemp and pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

Click thumbnail for a larger version

However, research clearly indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA.

A common misconception, especially amongst vegetarians and vegans, is that our need for EPA and DHA can be met by consuming flax oil and other plant sources of ALA. But the conversion numbers above clearly indicate that this isn’t the case.

Studies have shown that ALA supplements (like flax oil) are unable to raise plasma DHA levels in vegans, despite low DHA levels at baseline. (ref) So unless they are supplementing with an algae-derived source of DHA, it is likely that most vegetarians and vegans are deficient.

This is significant because researchers now believe that the majority of the health benefits we get from dietary omega-3 fats come from the longer chain derivatives (especially DHA, as I will explain below).

Is DHA essential?

In fact, some researchers have proposed that DHA is essential. When scientists label a nutrient as “essential”, they they’re not just saying that it’s “very important”. In the context of nutrition essential means that the nutrient cannot be synthesized in the human body, and must be derived from dietary sources.

According to today’s nutrition textbooks, there are only two essential fatty acids, omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It is believed that as long as these fats are present in the diet, all of the longer-chain omega-3 and omega-6 derivatives can be synthesized in the body.

As I pointed out above, while this is theoretically possible, in reality the conversion doesn’t work well. This is true even for healthy people, but it’s especially true for those with nutrient deficiencies, because the conversion of ALA to DHA depends on zinc, iron and pyridoxine.

The bioavailability of iron in plant sources is poor compared to animal sources, so iron deficiency is common in vegans and vegetarians. This is another reason why they tend to be poor converters of ALA to DHA.

Several other observations support the hypothesis that DHA is essential:

  • DHA content in the tissues of all mammals is very similar despite widely varying intakes of omega-3 fatty acids. 1
  • DHA and AA, but not other omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids, are selectively transferred across the placenta (PDF).
  • 60% of the dry matter of the brain is lipid, and DHA and AA are the most abundant fatty acids of brain phospholipids (PDF)
  • DHA status in newborns is much lower in those receiving formula with LA and ALA, than in those receiving milk or formula with pre-formed DHA (PDF)

It is possible that the primarily carnivorous diet of our ancestors, which ensured a consistently high dietary intake of DHA and AA, precluded the need to evolve efficient conversion mechanisms.

In other words, since we were eating a lot of meat and fish with pre-formed DHA and AA, our bodies didn’t need to be experts at converting ALA and LA in plants to DHA and AA. It is far easier for the body to assimilate pre-formed DHA and AA than it is to synthesize them from precursors.

What about EPA? Isn’t it essential too?

EPA is another long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is conventionally believed to be responsible for the benefits of fish consumption.

EPA is often referred to as “anti-inflammatory”. However, according to this report on essential fatty acids by Masterjohn, EPA’s effect seems to be more of an interference with the metabolism of omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) than the performance of any essential role itself.

Take a look at the chart again that I linked to in the beginning of the post. The fatty acids in blue boxes are less inflammatory, and those in pink boxes are more inflammatory. The chart shows that AA is used to synthesize prostaglandins that cause inflammation (indicated by the pink box on the chart). Because it has the same number of carbon atoms, EPA competes with AA for the enzymes that metabolize it. Since the prostaglandins made by EPA are less inflammatory than those made by AA (indicated by the blue box), EPA is often referred to as “anti-inflammatory”.

But while EPA is certainly less inflammatory than AA, it doesn’t make sense that the body would require an essential fatty acid just to block the inflammatory effects of of another fatty acid.

By contrast, DHA is used to synthesize compounds that play an active role in resolving inflammation. EPA only makes these compounds in the presence of aspirin (PDF). EPA is thus likely to simply be a byproduct of compromised DHA synthesis.

What does this mean to you?

Putting all of this information together yields the following conclusions:

  1. DHA is the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids, and is primarily responsible for the benefits we get from consuming them.
  2. DHA is likely to be essential, which means that you must consume it in the diet to prevent disease and ensure optimal function.
  3. The conversion of plant sources of ALA, such as flax seed oil, to DHA is poor in healthy people and even worse in people deficient in certain nutrients. Vegans and vegetarians are especially prone to be poor converters of ALA to DHA.
  4. If you’ve been buying flax oil in the hopes that it will help, you’d be far better off putting that money towards some fish or fish oil capsules.

Dietary changes over the past century have lowered the DHA status to a state of subclinical deficiency in many people. Countless studies show that this deficiency is at least in part to blame for the rising incidence of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disease, mental and psychiatric disorders and suboptimal neurodevelopment.

DHA is not the only reason to eat fish, which is also rich in selenium and vitamin D. However, DHA is likely to be the primary reason why populations that eat fish on a regular basis have consistently been shown to healthier than those that don’t. We’ll discuss this further in the next article.

  1. Jones PJH, Kubow S. Lipids, Sterols, and their Metabolites. In: Shils ME, et al., eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease: Tenth Edition. Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2006) pp. 92-122.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. says

    The studies on mental health benefits all point to EPA, not DHA, as the primary agent.  See also The Omega-3 Connection by Andrew Stoll, M.D., of Harvard Medical School.  Nonetheless, fish oil is the almost-sole direct source of EPA.  Good article.

    • Chris Kresser says

      Many studies suggesting EPA provides the greatest benefit are flawed. They are conducted in humans consuming a massive excess of linoleate; they have used very small amounts of ALA; they measure blood levels instead of tissue levels; and they don’t take into account vitamin B6 status or any of the other variables that affect desaturase activity.

      The standard American diet is excessively high in LA (at least fifteen times the required amount). LA depresses the production of DHA, especially if the intake of ALA is low (as it often is in the U.S.) Since DHA, but not EPA, is preferentially incorporated into tissues, measuring blood levels probably overestimates EPA and underestimates DHA.

      The EPA content of terrestrial animal products, even those rich in DHA, is minimal. While DHA content in tissues is very similar across all mammals, the same is not true for EPA.

      For these reasons I believe the role of EPA has been overestimated.

      • says

        It is fascinating to me how studies conducted on unhealthy subjects can throw off results and lead scientists to totally irrelevant and incorrect conclusions. How much of our current research is flawed due to these “hidden” variables.

        • says

          Peggy, I find it equally distressing, if not more so, that they test drugs for treating diagnoses on healthy patients, not on patients with the disorder they aim to treat. How can they find out the efficacy of a medication by testing it on someone who does not have the problem?

        • says

          Moss,

          I agree. The gravity of that reality is that as populations become sicker, the data becomes more skewed. I’ve really gotten to the point where I hesitate to believe much of what I read in general medicine. I have D.O. who is very holistic, but is a vegan, and sometimes getting through to her on issues of cholesterol levels (particularly particle counts and HDL/LDL talk) and sources (eggs are bad she says…. not) is tough. We live in a country where one of the top three killers is admittance into a hospital for care. Is that a sign of where we’re at, or am I being too judgemental?

      • marc says

        Not sure about the comment on vegetable sources of iron. Actually anemia is as common and if not more so amongst meat eaters than many vegetarians. There are plenty of vegetarian foods with available iron. The problem with vegetarians is usually one of gut flora.

  2. Robert Jacobs says

    Thanks for a good piece on Omega 3′s.  I agree that fish is healthy, and, if one wants Omega 3′s (I still remain skeptical that this is true), fish is probably the best source.
    It has long been a primary belief of mine that whatever is commonly promoted and sold to consumers is probably not healthy, or that the kernel of truth regarding the issue is seriously misunderstood.  That makes me a skeptic of nearly everything.  However, from my previous readings (these are sources cited by others, not me, I am just a layman trying to figure things out) some research seems to have doubts about DHA and all Omega 3′s.  Just thought I send some of their references:

    Free Radic Res. 2001 Apr;34(4): 427-35. DHA supplementation increases oxidative damage in bone marrow DNA in rats and the relation to antioxidant vitamins. Umegaki, et al.
    J Physiol. Feb 15;475(1):83-93. Facilitatory effect of DHA on N-methyl-d-aspartate response in pyramidal neurons of rats’ cerebral cortex. Nishikawa, et al.
    [ I think this entire piece is worth a read ] : http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/fishoil.shtml

    Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Nov;80(5):1167-74. Docosahexaenoic acid concentrations are higher in women than in men because of estrogenic effects. Giltay EJ, Gooren LJ, Toorians AW, Katan MB, Zock PL. “The proportion of DHA was 15 +/- 4% (x +/- SEM; P < 0.0005) higher in the women than in the men. Among the women, those taking oral contraceptives had 10 +/- 4% (P = 0.08) higher DHA concentrations than did those not taking oral contraceptives. Administration of oral ethinyl estradiol, but not transdermal 17beta-estradiol, increased DHA by 42 +/- 8% (P < 0.0005), whereas the antiandrogen cyproterone acetate did not affect DHA. Parenteral testosterone decreased DHA by 22 +/- 4% (P < 0.0005) in female-to-male transsexual subjects. Anastrozole decreased estradiol concentrations significantly and DHA concentrations nonsignificantly (9 +/- 6%; P = 0.09). CONCLUSION: Estrogens cause higher DHA concentrations in women than in men, probably by upregulating synthesis of DHA from vegetable precursors.
    Neurobiol Aging. 1982 Fall;3(3):173-8. Lipid peroxides in brain during aging and vitamin E deficiency: possible relations to changes in neurotransmitter indices. Noda Y, McGeer PL, McGeer EG. “Lipid peroxide levels, were found to be significantly higher in brains of 18 month old as compared to 4 month old rats, with particularly large increases occurring in the olfactory bulb, globus pallidus, cerebral cortex and caudate-putamen (CP). Eighteen month old rats fed a vitamin E deficient diet for 9 months before sacrifice had lipid peroxide levels significantly higher than age-matched controls in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus and hypothalamus.” “Age-related decreases were seen in choline acetyltransferase, acetylcholinesterase and 3H-QNB binding in some but not all brain regions, while GABA transaminase and MAO showed age-related increases.” “As compared with controls, vitamin E deficient rats showed decreases of 38% in cortical 3H-DHA binding, of 33% in 3H-QNB binding in the CP and of 23% and 12% in choline acetyltransferase in the CP and cerebellum, respectively.”

    Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2005 Mar;371(3):202-11. Epub 2005 Apr 15. Antiarrhythmic and electrophysiological effects of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Dhein S, Michaelis B, Mohr FW. “Atrioventricular conduction time was slowed only by DHA and EPA.” “Regarding antiarrhythmic activity we found that the threshold for elicitation of a ventricular extrasystole was concentration-dependently enhanced by DHA and EPA, but not by ALA. DHA dose-dependently reduced longitudinal propagation velocity V(L) and to a lower extent transverse velocity V(T).”
    J Biol Chem. 2002 Oct 18;277(42):39368-78. The mechanism of docosahexaenoic acid-induced phospholipase D activation inhuman lymphocytes involves exclusion of the enzyme from lipid rafts. Diaz O, Berquand A, Dubois M, Di Agostino S, Sette C, Bourgoin S, Lagarde M, Nemoz G, Prigent AF. “Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that inhibits T lymphocyte activation, has been shown to stimulate phospholipase D (PLD) activity in stimulated human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC).” “This PLD activation might be responsible for the immunosuppressive effect of DHA because it is known to transmit antiproliferative signals in lymphoid cells.”
    J Nutr 2000 Dec;130(12):3028-33. Polyunsaturated (n-3) fatty acids susceptible to peroxidation are increased in plasma and tissue lipids of rats fed docosahexaenoic acid-containing oils. Song JH, Fujimoto K, Miyazawa T.. “Thus, high incorporation of (n-3) fatty acids (mainly DHA) into plasma and tissue lipids due to DHA-containing oil ingestion may undesirably affect tissues by enhancing susceptibility of membranes to lipid peroxidation and by disrupting the antioxidant system.”

    • Chris Kresser says

      Robert,

      I’ve read a lot of Ray Peat’s stuff, as well as other research suggesting n-3s aren’t essential. Overall, I believe the epidemiological and clinical evidence supports the hypothesis that DHA reduces CVD mortality and improves other outcomes. I’ll be covering this in more detail in subsequent posts in this series.

    • Alvaro says

      but im wondering if tests on mice are even relevant at all, because our need and efficient use of DHA probably comes from being a species that ate alot of fish during our evolution, we always lived near rivers because of the fresh water and fish.

  3. Risa Graves says

    Could you please comment as to the amount of fish, and what types we should be consuming? Salmon and sardines are my favorites, but are there others high in omega 3′s? thank you

  4. Robert Jacobs says

    Chris   –
    Right. I know you have done so, by the comments you have made and your writings.  I look forward to your next piece.  Keep up the good work.

  5. says

    @Chris Kesser – EPA content in the body could easily be overestimated, but brain content is quite high.  Dr. Stoll’s tests, and others, show that DHA has less effect on mental processes, specifically aiding proper firing of neurons, than EPA does.  Almost beside the point – fish oil is better than flax, hemp, etc.
     
    We could use some studies on GLA.  There are a few positive indications in mental health, but I have yet to see verifiable studies.

  6. Jesse says

    Chris,
    I’d like to thank you for inspiring me to actually take my algal oil. The capsules are so big that I hadn’t been able to swallow them before tonight. It’s so much more pleasant to swallow them than to break them open and mix them into my oatmeal.
     
    Also, what exactly does DHA DO? What happens if we don’t get enough?

  7. enliteneer says

    Is it true that all polyunsaturated fats have omega-6 and omega-3s?
    Similarly, would all monounsaturated fats contain omega-9s?

    • Chris Kresser says

      Not exactly. A polyunsaturated fat is a fatty acid with more than one double-bond. Omega-6 and Omega-3 are different types of polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is true that many foods have a range of fats in them, including polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6), monounsaturated (n-9 and n-7) and saturated. When we refer to a “saturated fat”, like coconut oil, we’re referring to a fat that is primarily made up of saturated fatty acids. Coconut oil is 92.1% saturated fat, 6.2% monounsaturated, and 1.6% polyunsaturated. Most fats have a more even distribution of fatty acids. All monounsaturated fats will contain at least some omega-9.

  8. SN says

    Our ancestors were never primarily carnivorous. Animal based foods were few and far between until modern humans … and even then animal based foods were few and far between for all but the most wealthy until very recently in our history. When there’s such a glaring mistake, it’s hard to take any of your other “facts” seriously.

    • Chris Kresser says

      SN,

      Show me one study published in a reputable journal that supports your viewpoint. The idea that animal foods were “few and far between” is absurd.

      • Andy says

        No use in commenting about human diet million years ago, they were eating meat, for sure, but if somebody gave them the knowledge of planting, manipulating and multiplying plants…

        The world is not America solely! Some 100,150 years ago, in Europe, many populations depended on potatoes or grains or beans, eating meat was a rare occasion for many rural and urban populations back then, once a week or even rarer!

      • Jfer says

        Your statement that our Paleolithic ancestors were primarily carnivorous isn’t supported by the research either (and it takes more than just “one study” to prove a hypothesis)

        We simply don’t know the proportions of meat to plant foods, and it likely varied from area to area (e.g more meat in cold climes)

        Wikipedia has a good summary of the research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic#Diet_and_nutrition

    • Chris Redmond says

      If we were never primarily carnivorous, or if our diet never contained significant amounts of meat, I’d suggest evolution shouldn’t have ensured we each possessed 8 incisor and four canine teeth, and I’d also suggest you are a Vegetarian or Vegan yourself, and if this is the case it would explain your views which are based not on any evidence whatsoever.

      Stating that animal based foods weren’t available in any quantity to anyone except the most wealthy until recently is ludicrous in the extreme, as it is only relatively recently that ‘the most wealthy’ even existed; what did native Americans eat before Columbus for instance, and what do the most primitive tribes eat now? I think you’ll find it’s a similar diet to the great apes – meats, fruits and vegetables, the definition of omnivorous.

      • Yann says

        Great apes don’t eat meat though… Chimps are the only ones that eat some, and it’s less than 2% of their diet… And did you see the canines on those guys?

    • Cheryl says

      This is incorrect. Just look at the work of Dr. Weston A Price. http://www.westonaprice.org/about-the-foundation/dr-price-movie

      Dr. Weston A. Price (1870-1948), a Cleveland dentist, has been called the “Isaac Newton of Nutrition.

      He has proven that the reason tribes were so healthy was because they ate meat and thereby received the necessary nutrients for health. Sugar and white flour were unknown to them at this time in history. Please read and be informed.

  9. says

    Ditto, SN.  Show me your sources.
     
    The anthropologists who talked with Dr. Stoll for his book indicated that, at some point in our evolution, there were several hominid species competing, and the tribes that lived along the lake (spearing and eating fish) were the ones whose brains grew, enabling them to out-compete the other tribes and causing the final step in Homo sapiens.

    • Ajith Bhojani says

      Eskimos eat tons of fish for thousands of years. Yet they don’t appear to be so intelligent otherwise they would not have been living in ice cubes all this time. They would have invented electricity way before Farraday. Fact is it doesn’t make you smart at all.

      • carlos dejesus says

        The term is Inuit and their way of life is what it is. Invention is derived out of necessity. Their life style didn’t need it. On another note Inuit people have a significantly lower rate of heart disease and cancer. All of that from seal blubber and arctic char.

        Four year old article by the way

      • Warren says

        What an interesting interpretation how to measure intelligence. I suppose I could counter that modern man must not be very intelligent with our high rates of obesity, CVD, diabetes, atherosclerosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, alzheimer’s, etc., etc., etc. Ajith: I would love to see how well you would fare if you were placed in a village of a pre-historic tribe, or even a more modern village, and forced to fend for yourself. Trust me: you would not feel very “intelligent”.

  10. Chris Kresser says

    Moss,

    I agree with you on that.  I’ve seen some interesting evidence which contradicts the “savannah hypothesis”, and suggests instead that hominids evolved along the edges of lakes as Dr. Stoll reports.

    We won’t see any sources from SN.  There aren’t any.

    • Adam says

      Of course there aren’t any, Chris. We all know that meat was available to many of our ancestors. What our bodies are biologically best suited to is an unrelated matter. Someone 1,000 years from now could look at us and conclude that fast food is healthy because our average life expectancy is well over 70.

      I’ve been trying to figure out a few things: if most mammals have omega-3′s in their tissues despite varying intakes, then where are they getting them from? Couldn’t one use that argument to say “hey, humans consuming healthy diets don’t need omega-3′s because their bodies will make it.” This makes me wonder if blood levels of DHA are really telling the story. If most of the DHA is taken up into tissue, then blood samples wouldn’t tell us much. I’m just wondering because I’ve recently started taking fish oil supplements, and now I’m wondering whether it’s really worth it. Sure, people that have heart disease probably need them, but they weren’t healthy to begin with.

      • says

        There is some compelling information in the book entitled “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham. He paints a detailed picture of our evolution and brain growth and describes exactly what our bodies are designed–by evolution–to digest. Whether fish or meat or vegetables, the fact of the matter is, we are a cooking ape, and it is this advancement that has brought us into the modern world.

  11. says

    @Robert Jacobs – I know that fish oil has been one of the most significant contributors to my remaining relatively mentally healthy without all the psychiatric drugs my doctors had me on a merry-go-round of.  As Dr. Stoll suggests that EPA is the major reason for this, I am thankful.  Note that Dr. Stoll convinced his wife so much of his studies that she started a company producing OmegaBrite, a product with a 10:1 ratio of EPA:DHA, even though Dr. Stoll’s studies said nothing about other than a 3:2 ratio of them.
     
    @Chris Kresser — Thanks for more articles.  I’m going over there to read them now.

  12. says

    I love your series.  Adding omega-3 supplementation while decreasing omega-6 in our diets was our first diet change that my son’s autism made big improvements on (the SCD was the other drastic improvement). For some reason, the research points to autistics doing better with a higher EPA to DHA ratio (the reverse for ADHD). My son is more bright-eyed  with a higher EPA blend. I had also found  a journal article that showed EPA seemed to be protective against LPS. So maybe there’s more to the EPA thing than we can tell?

  13. Chris Kresser says

    Hi Tracee,

    Thanks for sharing your experience.  Yes, there is still much we don’t know – especially about the relative importance of EPA and DHA.  It’s interesting to hear that EPA is more effective for your son.

  14. Roger Kaza says

    Hi, great post and podcast.
    I know fish oil stomps flax, but I have two questions:
    Do plant-based n-3 oils “count” in our caloric balancing act of n-3 and n-6, even if 99%  of it doesn’t get converted?
    Is it possible that the unconverted 99% is valuable and healthy in some other way besides simple conversion to DHA and EPA?
    Thanks for your work.
     

    • Chris Kresser says

      N-3 still counts in the ratio, but you’d want to emphasize EPA & DHA. And yes, it’s possible that ALA has some benefit but studies definitely suggest that the bulk of the benefit comes from EPA & DHA.

  15. says

    Thanks so much for writing this series of articles on fats and fish oils, I recently converted to a paleo diet and eating too many nuts and not enough fish has been my major downfall, this has given me the motivational kick up the arse I needed to get it together and sort it out. I love your site, keep up the great work, it’s very much appreciated!
    Take care,
    Khrystyna

    http://foodfloraandfelines.blogspot.com/

  16. David says

    Great article (as always) Chris. Question: Have you found any differences between algae containing DHA vs. just eating fish? Also, Do you know of any differences between farmed fish (i.e. farmed salmon) vs. wild salmon in regards to DHA levels?

    • Chris Kresser says

      Whole fish has selenium, vitamin D (in some cases) and protein. It’s a more complete food, and absorption of the EFAs is better than it is in oils or capsules as I explained in another article. Wild salmon often has more DHA than farmed from what I’ve seen.

  17. David says

    Thanks Chris. I had read somewhere that farmed fish did not contain an omega 3 that was useful to the body, but didn’t know what to make of it. Have you ever heard of this? Or, is the quality of n-3 the same, and the only difference is the quantity? It’s rather difficult to source wild salmon and tuna and salmon are the only fish I really enjoy eating.

  18. Chris Kresser says

    I’m not sure about that (farmed fish containing EFAs that aren’t useful).  I haven’t seen any mention of it in the literature.  But there are several other reasons to avoid farmed salmon, as you probably know.

    If fresh wild salmon is hard to come by, you might try ordering canned wild salmon from Vital Choice.

    • Andy says

      It’s irresponsible and selFISHly to encourage people to consume wild fish! Of course depletion of oceans and rivers and lakes is no concern of yours!

  19. says

    David – I keep getting asked by vegetarians whether they have to eat fish oil, and I tell them about the GNC DHA-from-algae product.  Nobody yet has reported back to me whether it helped them.  I’d like to know.
     
    Chris – It makes sense that the fish-processed DHA, with EPA, Selenium, etc., would be better for us.  “Makes sense” does not provide proof, and I’d like to see it, but it’s a reasonable working hypothesis.
     
    Moss

  20. Anwen says

    Great podcast – I just listened to it and I would like to know your opinion on a few things:
    I’m somewhat confused as to the Omegas that are so widely added to supermarket eggs (Omega 3 +6).  What is the point of this if Omega 6 potentially cancels out the effects of Omega 3?
    Secondly, you talk about fish oils and fish as a good source of Omega3s/DHA however it depends on how well your body can break them down to absorb – depending on your current diet and intake of Omega 6.
    What is your take on micro-bluegreen algae such as Chorella and Spirulina as sources of DHA compared to fish oils (both in fish form and supplement form)From my understanding, Chorella has higher potency per unit than Spirulina, and both algaes have essential amino acids that are absorbed by the body at a higher ratio than oils.
    Thanks
     
     

    • Chris Kresser says

      I’ve never seen eggs with added omega-6 (I’d avoid them like the plague), but I have seen eggs with added omega-3. They do that because the confinement hens those eggs come from never get access to the free range, and never eat foods that would raise the omega-3 content of their eggs. They feed them flax seed instead to bring the omega-3 content up. If you’re buying supermarket eggs, those are your best bet.

      Spirulina and chlorella aren’t adequate sources of DHA. However, in my final article in the series I describe an algae-based DHA supplement that is suitable for vegetarians.

      • says

        Hi Chris, I realize this is 4 years later, but I have had wonderful experiences with Pastured eggs, now available in Whole Foods and here locally in Santa Cruz, New Leaf markets (probably Berkeley Bowl as well). Not only do they taste better, but they feel better, and have a brilliantly orange yolk versus some of the other eggs I have seen with almost a pasty white yellow yolk. I have heard that in order to get a decent amount of w3 from eggs you would have to eat 24 in one sitting, so this may be what Michael Pollan calls the sales approach to health. I recommend people eat their eggs with some delicious smoked wild caught salmon. Much better on the tastebuds, and definitely the right oils!

  21. Glenn Atkisson says

    As another healthy skeptic, I read this article and saw mostly the same things that myself and 50,000 others at least have seen on many websites that are trying to explain why humans need essential oils, and how they use them. In the interest of debunking a few mainstream myths here, I would like to suggest that all of us go directly to http://www.brianpeskin.com/ and read and or listen to what Brian Peskin has to say about the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. It certainly debunks a lot of the mainstream ideas about Lenoleic and Alpha Lenolenic Acid.

    Brian reads over 600 research articles per week and is the person I would consider the premier expert on the use of the essential oils in human physiology. Now I’m not suggesting to go to his website and read one article and then return to the mainstream. I’m actually suggesting going there and reading everything he has to say. That is, if you’re interested in the study of these oils in the human body.

    I think that if you read what he has discovered, you will see why people survived fine for these millions of years whether they ate fish or not. Why its not really necessary to find every “best” source of every nutrient on the planet and restrict your intake to each of the “best” sources.

    Brian does not make statements like “believed to confer”. He writes purely what has been determined by experiments to be the case. So if you read his papers, you will soon learn that EPA and DHA are NOT found exclusively in seafood. Its obviously impossible, because they are found in the human body, even a human body that has never eaten seafood. Even Chris says above, “DHA content in tissues is very similar across all mammals”.

    Of course, EPA and DHA are derivatives of the parent omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. The human body makes them as needed. The mainstream media keeps saying that unless the human body is very well supplied with supporting minerals such as zinc, iron and pyridoxine, it can’t even create the DHA it needs from the essential parent, ALA. Bunk. If humans were so frail and dependent on seafood they would have gone extinct long ago. Its quite obvious from observing societies that eat no fish, that the human body does just fine at deriving the medium chain fatty acids EPA and DHA from ALA. What the mainstream has mistaken for “inefficient conversion” of ALA in human plasma is based on the assumption that all ALA is good for is to supply EPA and DHA to the tissues. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Both Linoleic and Alpha Lenolenic Acids have multiple functions in the human body, especially in the cell walls, over and above allowing themselves to be broken down into the derivatives pictured in the “Eicosanoids” chart above. For instance, Lenoleic Acid is the efficient means of pulling oxygen from the blood into the cell for metabolism. Omega-9 can do this also, but it takes two molecules of Omega-9 (monosaturated) to do what one molecule of Lenoleic Acid (omega-6) can do. And this is precisely why consumption of adulterated cooking oils made from omega-6 rich plant oils such as corn and safflower is causing our great cancer and heart disease epidemics. Once the omega-6 is ruined, it still takes a place in the cell walls of each of our 10 trillion cells, but it doesn’t FUNCTION. Once a cell goes a period of time with even a 35% reduction in oxygen, it starts deriving energy TOTALLY from fermentation, and NONE from oxidation. Once this switch is thrown, it never reverses. That cell is cancerous.

    Chris, when you say, in introducing your chart of the fatty acids “it is also possible for the body to synthesize EPA and DHA from the short-chain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid” it implies that the process is some sort of back-up system, for the case where the person hasn’t ingested and distributed enough EPA and DHA. This is somewhat misleading, as we all know that we’ve survived millions of year without fish oil supplements, many of our ancestral lines without any sea food. Its better to look at the synthesis as the original design. It works that way in animals, period. Its just one of the many things that makes the species resilient.

    To summarize, we’re doing just fine if we can eat healthy foods. We don’t really need to supplement with more omega-3′s. The paramount thing that will make you healthy is absolutely cutting out the adulterated omega-6′s that you get in almost all processed, commercial foods. It the food has a shelf-life greater than 2 weeks, or is not in the frozen or refrigerated section, and it has any kind of fat in it that isn’t saturated, don’t touch it. don’t eat in restaurants because you have no idea what you’re getting. If we did that, we would cut down on the 40 to 1 omega-6 to omega-3 imbalance and end up with a natural, healthy diet with respect to fats (assuming we also get plenty of saturated fats) and the whole issue of supplementation could fly out the window.

    But for some reason, most people advising others on fatty acids won’t take on the whole food industry, maybe for fear they will lose their audience? So they hardly mention omega-6 except to say either we get too much, or it is “bad”. They only try to sell the idea of increasing our intake of omega-3′s. How sadly misleading. All the EPA and DHA

    • mark says

      Glenn, the reason we survived millions of years whether we ate fish or not, is because we also get omega 3 from eating animals which ate grass. Therefore we consumed omega 3′s either by consuming fatty fish or by eating ruminants which ate grass. Either way, we ate some. An interesting note would be where the vegetarian hunter-gatherer tribes get theirs from, as they obviously consume neither, but the vast majority of humans consumed omega 3 from these two sources during evolution. The industry has now shifted animals indoors and feeds them grains, soya and additives instead of letting them feed on natural grass , and consequently the levels of omega 3 have decreased rapidly in meat. My only concern with fish oils is that heat is used to extract them which potentially damages the PUFS and turns them rancid.

  22. Glenn Atkisson says

    To finish, All the EPA and DHA humans are now overdosing on now will eventually show up as a problem. The body was designed to create EPA and DHA as it needs them, and within each individual cell. There never before this decade were vast quantities of these derivative floating around in the the blood (which, by the way, you need cholesterol to transport), being stuffed into this cell and that cell, and not just into fat cells.

    A strange thing I’ve observed, mostly from reader comments, on the human perspective on nutrition: We all want the best, most potent source of everything. There are people who consume almost nothing EXCEPT supplements, if you include things like smoothies and protein drinks, because of their heavy supplement load. There is absolutely no way that we can expect to get anything except an imbalance by eating this way. I suggest as an alternative to start a garden or find a local source of really, really healthy food, and see if you dare then to drop the supplements. Remember, even “organic” doesn’t mean healthy. A piece of land can be certified as organic within 3 years. Does that mean all the nutrients are in the soil to provide really healthy food. No, it just means relatively free of pesticides, commercials fertilizers, etc. The health of the soil is only partly restored.

    Back on subject: Regarding Essential Fatty Acids, read ALL of Brian Peskin.

    He’s iconoclastic. He breaks with tradition. He exposes myths. He’s scientific. He’s unrelenting. What more could you ask for as a Skeptic?

  23. says

    Actually, Glenn, I’ve been telling my “people” NOT to go for the highest-potency fish oil. The high-potency ones usually don’t have the same balance of EPA to DHA (usually favoring EPA, such as OmegaBrite), and there may be effective cofactors in regular fish oil that don’t exist when you concentrate it for EPA and DHA content.

    As most of the people I advocate for are people with diagnosed mental health challenges, and as we all (with very few exceptions) appear to be getting great benefits from continued use of at least 4 grams of regular-strength fish oil, and as it is cheaper and much more effective than the drugs our doctors would rather give us, I think we’ll continue taking our fish oil. I’m aware of the other benefits to the body of Omega-3s; but to us, those are just beneficial side-effects.

  24. Glenn Atkisson says

    Thanks Moss. I see you are dealing with people with “special needs” and that can benefit therefore from “special treatment” that is possibly outside what has been determined physiologically to be adequate amounts of nutrients. Since I don’t know which maladies you deal with I can’t comment on the methods you might use, but I don’t doubt you’ve experienced good results from the use of lower potency fish oils.

    As you haven’t indicated that you have investigated the experiments and studies that Brian Peskin explains and references in his articles, here’s one of his papers that you might want to study to see what he says are contraindications of heavy doses of EPA and DHA. These involve problems such as increased incidence of colon cancer, thickening (not thinning) of arterial walls, worsened blood-sugar control, and some brain manifestations I’ll leave you to interpret the significance of:

    http://www.brianpeskin.com/BP.com/reports/CAMB-Fish-Oil-Fallacies-Report.pdf

    And to balance the “Peskin tutorial” information and insure you have a chance to read as much of his findings on omega-6 and its importance to the human body, including especially the brain, as the above article provides on omega-3, here’s another paper:

    http://www.brianpeskin.com/BP.com/reports/NewLookLDL-CAMB.pdf

    In the above paper you will see that the body’s physiology has always been set up to derive EPA and DHA from the parent omega-3, yet how there is a constant 100 times as much parent omega-6 as omega-3 in the brain and nervous system, regardless of diet. This should start to tell us what damage we are doing to our bodies when we ingest already oxidized omega-6 and trans fats because these substances do not have the functionality of healthy omega-6, yet take their place, molecule by molecule, in cell after cell. There’s a hundred other interesting points to mention, just in this one paper alone, but I’ll leave it to you to investigate if you wish.

  25. says

    I mostly deal with people who have received diagnoses of one form or another of bipolar disorder, although I am also dealing with people with other mental “illness” diagnoses. All I can say about your list of side effects is, they are certainly no worse — and less certain — than the effects of the drugs doctors tend to give us for these “diseases”. My kidneys are already mostly gone from “treatment”. The all-knowing doctors said they could halt the deterioration (then at 20-25% function) but not reverse it, that it would never reverse. By going off all medications and using some supplements and herbs, I now have 40-45% of my kidney function, and will no longer believe what a doctor tells me unless my leg is broken.

    Yeah, that’s an expression of anger, not of fact. I still go to doctors for the little lube-and-oil functions, and to check that my kidneys are still holding their own. But distrust of doctors among those who have been “treated” for “mental illness” with “psychiatric medication” (read: dangerous psychoactive drugs with horrible effects and worse side effects) is rampant, and this is the population I deal with on a regular basis.

  26. Glenn Atkisson says

    Well, I haven’t been personally abused by the medical profession, but I still have the distrust, Moss. Its always nice to hear a recovery story too, that involves one’s own research and hard work, and of course besides the solution, there’s the new found self confidence that will come in handy then next time we’re challenged. Not to mention – there’s no way one will turn around and trust the allopaths after they’ve cost you part of your life. So good comes out of everything, and we might as well see the light side.

    I’m thrilled you are treating bipolar with supplements and without drugs. Whatever works that causes no harm. There’s not a single patented medicine that causes no harm.

    Best of health to you and thanks for sharing with me.

  27. Wan says

    Thanks Chris for this great article! It was very helpful for my high school mini thesis on unsaturated fats. The comments were also very interesting although I would like to point out some generalized comments on doctors. Although what happened to Moss seems pretty unfair, outraging even, and it is totally understandable that he cannot trust doctors, it would still be an overgeneralisation to say that they cannot be trusted. I guess my opinion is quite bias, as I am hoping to enter the medical field, and both of my parents are medical practitioners.
    Anyway, thanks for the help, and for the interesting comments and debates!
    Oh, and thank you Glenn for the links to Brian Peskin articles.. I’m hoping I can find time to read all of them !

  28. Glenn Atkisson says

    Wan, you are accurate to say “not trusting MD’s” is an overgeneralisation. We that use and read about alternatives have just come across so many stories of abuse at the hands of MD’s that we throw that concept around quite loosely, knowing that we all know what we are talking about: the vast majority of MD’s. That profession is apparently hopelessly caught in the downward spiral of being victimized by the drug industry as their pawns.

    However, there is still a way to work, in my estimation, proudly in this day and age as an MD, and that is to continually stay abreast of research in the field and to align yourself in some way with alternative methods of treatment. Since way over 90% of research is worthless, it takes a lot of gleaning to find studies that weren’t built and edited to prove that another drug if effective, etc. One of the shortcuts to all this though is to find and read a few good alternative health writers, and to read ones with different biases. With this you will get a better overall perspective. For instance, this blog run by Chris still seems to be taken in by the giant fish oil scam, which if I had time, I could show you year by year how it developed, first by slamming saturated fats, then praising polyunsaturates, then sloughing off the omega-6 segment and focusing on omega-3. Brian Peskin has opened up the playing field again and exposed the fallacies that exist in this area, FOR THE MOMENT. But things will change.

    The Weston A. Price Foundation is another place to find out the truths of the values of saturated fats, and they help dispel some of the myths of polyunsaturates, but they again are under the influence of the dairy industry, so they have their biases.

    Definitely stay on your track, but be aware of what’s going on in alternative medicine and the growing dissatisfaction within the public’s mind regarding typical alopathic treatments with drugs. I can’t give you a study, but I think one, if conducted, would quite easily and clearly show that once a person changes from the reliance on mainstream medicine to some form of alternatives, they never change back. So this is a trend to follow if you consider medicine as a business.

    And definitely read something off Brian Peskin’s web site at least once a week until you feel comfortable with the material. He seems to add new papers weekly. He exposes the most glaring risks to our bodies that are easily remedied by individuals, i.e. not environmental toxins and electromagnetic fields which are ubiquitous, but diet dangers that can be stopped overnight.

    Best of health to you and yours.

  29. Wan says

    Thank you Glenn for your advice and help. I will definitely keep track of anything new and read as much as possible to have a more objective idea of what I am dealing with. I can’t wait to do medicine, but at the same time I am aware of the ‘risks’ I am taking. As you said, it can be a big business. But then, which profession isn’t nowadays? I will embark in medicine with another state of mind though. I know it’s easy to say this now, especially that I haven’t really had a taste of the profession yet, but I am very much determined to see medicine as a more ‘human’ career, than a money-making one. If the alternative methods are better, then yes. If not, stick to the good old ones! Then again the decision could be bias, but as you said, it is essential to be informed and look at the matter from different perspectives.
    I also really hope the reputation of doctors will change, although, with an increase in money-minded doctors, it is not likely to do so. I hope I will bring a more positive contribution to this field, in terms of its reputation, and also in terms of its methods of dealing with health.
    Thanks again and good health to you too Glenn

  30. Glenn Atkisson says

    Wan, I actually see the reputation of alternative MD’s changing, one at a time. The “aware” clients, a growing group, are only so eager to be able to recommend a good alternative-aware doctor, and would probably rather recommend an MD than a naturopath, all other things being equal.

    I see it as important to see any career as a “human” career. For the last 4 years before retirement, I was in real estate. I had been in computer consulting before that. I believe there is an analogy between real estate and a medical practice in that in both, you can either maximize the # of clients, and therefore $, shorting each client as much as possible on your time and valuable considerations, or you can give more, treating the clients as “family” and gain more a feeling of both brotherhood and accomplishment. But this will cost you $ each day. The idea is to look for a value in what you do that is measured in other than dollars. You may find it. I did and am not dissatisfied with the outcome. Build a business that is always rewarding the client and you will have a faithful throng that will refer others, and they will all come in happy. There’s way too much awareness now regarding the negative side of drugs to allow yourself to become yet another pawn of that industry such that you have to keep hiding from the truth and hiding the truth from the clients. This is all closer to ending than the drug companies can bear to confront. They are very desperate right now. They are finding it very hard to grow their business and don’t like to see it as an empire in liquidation. But I think it is. Can’t get too much further off topic!

  31. says

    I have some issues with WAPF overall, but… it seems a bit bizarre to claim they are in cahoots with the “dairy industry.”

    That industry does not particularly want me buying raw milk and pastured butter from the tiny family farm down the road, raw cheese from the Mennonite family that delivers with my CSA, eggs from my neighbor (since I can’t raise my own anymore), and making my own yogurt so it remains raw.

    Nothing I buy has a “brand” name, unless you count the name of the farm itself.

    I’m pretty sure WAPF would approve of my dairy habits, yet the dairy industry would not.

  32. lisatruitt says

    I have a friend who had been diagnosed with bipolar that had depression as a prominent feature. He had vitamin and mineral levels checked and was found to be very low in vitamin d. He was put on a high dose of d and in a few days his depression disappeared. He said the change was rapid and dramatic like a switch being flipped. I think I would pursue optimization of vitamin d for mental issues as well as other vitamins and minerals first. The antithyroid and aging effects that have been observed with pufas including fish oils really concerns me. It seems very possible that these oils may be ones to minimize in the diet rather than increasing. If any benefits they may have are exceeded by damaging effects, it would be wiser to get the beneficial effects from other things such as vitamin d that are not double edged swords. I am definitely going to continue to study this subject and read the research recommended above.

  33. says

    Lisa,

    If you’re deficient in Vitamin D, for sure take some. If that’s a problem, you might try cod liver oil and get your Omega 3s and A and D. But be aware that it is much easier to overdose on A and D, as they are oil-based and are held by the body, so it’s not as safe as you portray it., I have not heard anything on aging effects… and I’m 59 and have been taking fish oil for over 8 years. Most people try to argue with me when I tell them my age.

    A number of people are deficient in some B vitamin.They are not the same.so B1, B6, or a variant of B3 may be more helpful.

    I do admit that most tests run by docto4rs are based on artficially low levels, so any test which says you’re deficient should be taken seriously while those which say you are not should be evaluated more carefully.

  34. Rich says

    I’ve started supplementing with flax oil in my daily morning smoothy. I also take a DHA supplement at night and eat as much fish as I can. That said (and cost of supplementation aside) is it ill-advised for me to take the flax oil? Could it be interfere with the DHA from supplements and fish oil, or will I still gain some benefit from the flax running interference with other omega-6′s? Also, if I need to use oil at home for stir-frying or salad dressings, is canola oil and/or a light olive oil my best choice (for use with heat?).

    Thanks much in advance!

    • Chris Kresser says

      Too much PUFA – whether omega-3 or omega-6 – can increase the risk of oxidative damage. So the flax oil is unnecessary and possibly harmful in the long term. The best oils for stir-frying is coconut oil.

      • L says

        That isn’t part of the regular allergy panel, they only test you on various species of fish and crustacean here in Canada.

  35. Gary Springer says

    Hi Chris, Waiting to hear your opinion of the damning evidence against fish oil supplementation presented by Brian Peskin. I have a couple thoughts, but would like to hear yours first. Thank you!!

  36. Walter says

    I have never posted a comment before, but you make it very easy. I looked at the fatty acid composition table just today. I congratulated myself that I had a can of sardines and one of mackerel on the shelf. I just threw them out. The mackerel with its advertised omega three content was packed in sunflower oil. The sardines were packed in oil (soybean).

      • says

        Chris,
        Thanks for including references. I’m currently in a Nutrition course for my Masters in Sport and Health Science. It’s a good program, and this class is OK, but the first two chapters of the book are dedicated to advertising for MyPlate.gov and using the NutriCalc+ program to make sure we’re constructing all-inclusive diets of grain and dairy and not too much protein. The book actually states that its goal is to promote a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet. Your blogs have been an arsenal of counter-information that have helped me personally as well as academically to present information from an educated perspective.

        Thanks,
        Sonny

  37. Perry says

    There are soooooo many other foods out there that have omega 3–in general–to be concerned with salmon.

    Also, there are plenty of people and many cultures who do not eat fish, and they are just as healthy.

    And, our body does not need a lot of omega 3. In fact, our body releases omega 3 when needed.

    Fish, salmon, is highly overrated.

    I’d like to know when this salmon thing got started, anyway.

    Maybe the supplement companies got it gong with fish oi, and then the food companies followed it with “eat more fish!!”

  38. Des says

    So, I know this article is really old, but I thought it would be relevant to share this study which conflicts with your assertion that vegans & lacto-ovo-vegetarians are poor converters of ALA to EPA/DHA. When their levels were measured, non-fish-eaters appeared to have a far superior conversion ability to fish-eaters (presumably because the body increases conversion in the absence of dietary sources of EPA/DHA – similar to the mechanism for Iron absorption). Which is lucky for the millions of people with fish allergies…

    http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/Omega-3-ALA-intakes-enough-for-EPA-DPA-levels-for-non-fish-eaters

  39. kyle says

    Great article Chris,

    Thanks for all your help. You are one of my go to sources for of all my nutritional inquiries/questions. I had a quick follow-up that I would greatly appreciate if you had any insight. What is the conversion of LA to AA. Is it 100% or do you have a number?

    Or else it would seem that consuming flax would worsen or ratio if all if LA was converted at a better ratio and ALA wasn’t converted to DHA more than a very little.

    Thanks,
    Kyle

  40. chasWm says

    One can also get their fill of EPA/DHA from seeds, such as chia seeds and hemp seeds which are better used by the body than processed fish oil and contain vitamins, mineral and soluable fiber. I am sure that there are other seeds with fulfill EPA/DHA requirements other than Fish. I dont believe that fish is the only source of EPA/DHA as was stated in earlier articles

  41. Glenn Atkisson says

    chasWm, you are new to this discussion and I want to point out that Chris continued it in two other articles which he mentioned in his May 11, 2010 comment above. You can link to them with:
    http://chriskresser.com/how-too-much-omega-6-and-not-enough-omega-3-is-making-us-sick
    http://chriskresser.com/how-much-omega-3-is-enough-that-depends-on-omega-6
    These will bring you better up to date on Chris’s information on omega-6 and omega-3.
    Actually, Chris is fairly accurate in claiming that fish is practically the only source of of EPA/DHA in it’s pure form. You can also get DHA from eating brains.
    In contrast to all that you will read in Chris’s 3 articles on these essential oils, which stress getting the EPA/DHA in a pure state from fish oils to insure a given quantity, I tend to rely on what you mention as my sources: other foods that contain the top (or parent) level, omega-3 as alpha-linolenic acid, and omega-6 as linoleic acid. This is not just nuts, but almost every living substance. Animal products have higher percentages of all fats usually than do plants, so they also have higher percentages of the more rare omega-6 and omega-3 oils. I believe if you eat a balanced, and healthy diet of only whole foods, and no processed foods, fried foods or factory created “foods” such as trans fats, you will definitely get enough omega-6 and omega-3 in an acceptable ratio to allow your body to create all the derivatives detailed in the above chart, just as human bodies have been doing for millions of years before fish oils were invented.
    I believe from the studies I’ve read, that humans can adequately derive DHA and EPA from the parent omega-3. Chris sites studies that show that this conversion is “inefficient”. This word “inefficient” is used to because low percentages of DHA/EPA are derived from the parent. This is ignorant of the fact that parent omega-6 and omega-3 are stored by the body, and the conversion only takes place as DHA and EPA are actually needed. There is no “inefficiency”. Rather there is a designed “make what is needed”. However, it is true that if one eats heavily of processed foods containing cheap vegetable and seed oils, the enzymes needed for converting omega-3 may be derailed into converting omega-6 into it’s derivatives, as there is competition for the same enzymes. The solution though is not to consume fish oil sources of DHA/EPA to “balance” these ruined oils in a junk-food diet, but to cut out the ruined oils, fried foods, etc. and eat mostly free-range animal products that will have a healthy balance of the omega’s that will allow the conversions of the omega’s to take place, giving sufficient quantities of both omega-6 and omega-3 derivatives.
    Free-range cattle end up with a o-6:o-3 ratio of about 5:1. Wild game has a ratio of about 4:1. This 4:1 ratio is what has been proven to be ideal for functioning of the human brain:
    http://www.direct-ms.org/sites/default/files/Yehuda%20Omega%203%206%20ratio.pdf
    There are many writers who will say that humans should have a 1:1 ratio or sometimes a 2:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3. I personally believe, after reading studies that show the ratio of wild animals, that a 4:1 ratio is more acceptable, and will be what you will get without having to measure anything or worry about it at all if you just restrict your diet to whole, natural, foods and leave off the junk. Eating a great variety of foods is also important. A diet heavy in nuts and grains will generally give you far too much omega-6. A few nuts such as walnuts and hemp seed are balanced more like a 4:1 ratio. The rest, like most grains, have far too little omega-3 to be healthy.
    Another thing I like about you emphasizing raw sources of food over using fish for getting your omega-3 chasWM, is that omega-3 is the most perishable of all the unsaturated oils. From fish sitting around on a vendor’s ice, or before being canned, you can end up with already oxidized omega-3. The DHA from this will not be good for your body. The same is even more true for fish oils processed into capsules. How will you know if fish oil capsules contain unoxidized, healthy oil? It’s a lot safer in this season to go to the store and buy a few walnuts, in the shell, break them open and consume them right away. You only need a few walnuts to give you omega-3 that will equal what you get from a couple of fish-oil capsules. And the bonus is you will also be getting fresh omega-6 to balance it!
    Best of health to you, and keep exploring and learning.
    Glenn

    • Carla Mussa says

      To Chris and Glenn, have either of you read the writings and studies conducted by Patricia Kane PhD? She promotes a 4:1 ratio of 0mega 6:3 and also discusses the benefits of phosphotidyl choline. In fact there are many studies that show reversal of neurological diseases when the 4:1 ratio is in balance. Here is the link : http://patriciakane.net. To our health, cheers!

      • Glenn Atkisson says

        Yes, Carla, I’ve read Dr. Kane. She gives great insight into what happens when someone gets their diet right by eating no ruined vegetable oils, but continues to think they will benefit from supplementing with fish oil, thus getting a physiological overdose of DHA and EPA. It’s a neurological disaster. She is on the cutting edge of research showing that a person on a healthy diet needs no polyunsaturated supplements and they can do great damage.

        The rest of the field will catch up in 10 or 15 years, hopefully. By the age of 1 or 2, all humans have almost all the DHA they need, already in their brain. Their bodies use most of their incoming alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in a conversion to DHA and EPA. After that, unless a person has a neurological problem, most of their ingested ALA is broken down into other derivatives that are useful to the immune system.

        Thanks for pointing out the work of Patricia Kane.

  42. Richard Sadler says

    This all sounds plausible – deficiency of DHA in modern diet etc – but unfortunately the problem is being approached from the wrong way around. The fact is that current levels of fishing are already unsustainable – and with the human population forecast to go on expanding there just won’t be enough fish on the planet to provide every one with fish oil (and that’s without even going into the problem of high concentrations of heavy metals and other poisonous contaminants found in these oils … or the welfare of the poor, wretched fish). The obvious common sense solution is to concentrate efforts on finding a SUSTAINABLE source of DHA from marine algae/ flax etc. In order for the planet to support our burgeoning population we should all be working towards a vegan diet. So instead of saying, “fish oil’s better than flax,” we should be saying, “where can we find efficacious alternatives to fish oil?”

    • Ajith Bhojani says

      Great post. Until people realise that the way the human population is living today is harming the planet and its inhabitants both human and animal then unfortunately the future prospects of our species does not look good.

      There already is algae derived DHA available. My question is do we really need to take these supplements to maintain health?

  43. Matthew says

    What a wonderful article and thread. Chris, I have spent the last two weeks consuming your wonderful gift of thought. I thank you for that.

    This is the first thread I have seen you not answer what seems to be a very valid thought process. While I have not read anything from Brian Peskin yet, Mr. Atkisson does a noble job of describing his position. You ignore it. Why?

    Is it not possible that the formation of DHA/EPA is not as well understood as you make it out to be?

  44. Philip says

    For me the bigger issue is the food chain and the avoidance of mass produced farmed produce, which includes fish, livestock, etc.

    If we eat fish that no longer gets omega oils from natural sources (algae) but from produced food pellets with added omega oil supplements then what is the advantage of eating the fish? Even now, they are experimenting with producing the algae omega oils from DNA modified plants to add to fish feed as it will be cheaper.

    If we are what we eat, then it follows that our food is what it eats…if the soil/food source is empty so will be the plants and animals.

    So should we eat the fish or just take the omega oil supplements? Does the fish taking supplements still produce a better omega oil for us?

  45. Fannie says

    I’ve been taking Laminine Omega and I’m satisfied with it. The fish oil is sourced from Engraulis Ringens (a member of the anchovy family), found in the Humboldt Current off the coast of South America near Peru, where the waters are clean and clear. Phytoplankton that the Engraulis Ringens species consumes in this region is rich in DHA and EPA, giving the fish the highest naturally occurring ratios of DHA and EPA of any other fish species. The fish oil also undergoes molecular distillation, and is tested before and after the process to remove gunk and toxins and ensure the safety of the oil.

    It is patented and has the highest quality sources for Omega Fatty Acid 3 (EPA and DHA). It also has CoQ10(Extended Release), Vitamin K2… It is made in USA; head office is in California. I order it online http://tinyurl.com/q8fjc93 cuz it’s convenient and there’s free delivery & handling in the States & I think in Canada also. Delivery varies from 3 to 7 days. You may click Join if you want to be a member and get the member’s price Or click RETAIL ORDER if you don’t want to be a member and just want to buy the product.

    • Glenn Atkisson says

      Do you need more than .5% of your ALA converted to DHA Marcus? Before we go into all the things that modern technological research claims, I think it is important to remember that if the human body converts, on a given test, only .5% of ALA to DHA, it quite possibly knows this is all it needs converted. Especially if in every person’s history, during the time in the womb, and during the first year of life, the conversion rate was far higher, because each human needed a lot of DHA deposited in their growing brain.

      Over and over you will read in articles pushing fish oil supplements, that the word “inefficient” is used to describe the conversion of ALA to DHA. After 100 years of scientific research into human physiology, the research is still ongoing, and making progress (read “we don’t know a lot yet”) but for millions of years, humans have survived and overpopulated the planet with no help from supplemental DHA. So without reading a single piece of research, I can come to the conclusion that whoever is using the word “inefficient” here is doing a sales job, not a presentation about the needs and capabilities of the human body.

      But if you do read the research, you get a very confusing picture. I suggest you read every comment above to get a somewhat balanced picture of the situation. You’ll still probably be confused. My solution in such a case is to skip the supplements and eat a large variety of the healthiest food you can find. Almost without exception, if you spend all the money you spend on supplements on getting fresher organic unprocessed foods, you will find you need very little food to flourish. But begin by reading all the ideas here. Not the questions, but the ideas.

      The whole reason people take fish oil supplements is that someone sold them the idea that they are short on the ingredients: DHA and EPA. They’ve also been sold on the idea that because the average American eats a lot of excess, ruined omega-6, that they themselves need to “balance” their diet accordingly, whether they ingest ruined omega-6 fats or not. Whether they have an imbalance or not. No logic here. Just the herding of sheep by hucksters. But the tragic result can be an overdose of a substance that (remember?) the adult human body never derives more than .5% of from the parent material. Quite scary, really.

      If you are willing to try to learn something about how important unsaturated fats are to your body, and where they are used continually to allow metabolism and immunity, and how an imbalance or a dose of ruined unsaturated fats can make you very sick, please consider reading this article:

      http://www.bodybio.com/BodyBio/docs/BodyBioBulletin-Phosphatidylcholine.pdf

      Unsaturated fat is not just something stored in a fat cell or transported in the blood plasma. It is critical to the very life of each cell you have. Learn how beautifully complicated, but orchestrated things are, millisecond to millisecond in a human cell, and you may not worry any more about supplements and balances, but simply just find some good food choices and feast.

      Best of health,

      Glenn

      • marcus volke says

        No actually glen, the fact that humans cannot convert a large amount of ALA to DHA does not indicate that humans only require a small dose of DHA for optimum health, it implies that humans evolved to get their DHA preformed from animal foods. That is why herbivores can efficiently convert nutrients like beta carotene into vitamin A while carnivores cannot. Animals which evolved to ingest the nutrients preformed generally have poor conversion rates.
        Clearly you haven’t been reading the literature because it overwhelmingly supports the contention that DHA is responsible for the vast majority of omega 3 health benefits.

        • Glenn Atkisson says

          Marcus, first, to answer your original question, I have been reading more (as you suggested I might need to), and found a somewhat believable range for the conversion rate of ALA to DHA. The following discussion suggests the range may be from .2% up to 4%:

          http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/092208p66.shtml

          This article makes many other good points which I will refer to in a moment.

          For the general discussion I would mention there is more in Chris’ next article in this series regarding fish vs fish oil:

          http://chriskresser.com/the-fish-vs-fish-oil-smackdown

          He goes nicely into the issue. I’ll also mention another article which describes the extensive processing involved in creating omega-3 capsules from fish oil:

          http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/processing/marine/index.htm

          Even if you just breeze through to the end, you’ll get the idea that fish are so extensively processed that to end up with a supplement that contains only DHA and EPA, the fish was broken down in many different ways (heat, acids, solvents, enzymes) to the point where even the DHA and EPA were separate. Then they were put together again in the capsule.

          I would not call this “preformed”. To me, preformed is limited to what you might get if you eat brain, or ingest raw milk. Some preformed DHA also comes from meats, cheese, etc. but we must remember that these sources also provide even more of the parent, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which our bodies can covert to DHA. Human, cow and goat milk is the only preformed DHA that some infants get. Ever. They don’t eat fish and they don’t eat sea plants, and few eat brains. Vegan children are definitely in this camp. And on that point I totally hang my argument that after the DHA that children get from the placenta before birth, and from nursing for a couple of years, there can be very little preformed DHA intake and yet humans seem to get by and survive.

          I admit their visual acuity and brain function may be measurably better, though not noticeably better to an observer, if they are given more DHA. But I am going to extremes here using a vegan child as an example. Yet they do grow up and advance through school in spite of the apparent odds against them. This is what leads me to believe that humans can do quite well without supplementing with DHA, if they otherwise have proper nutrition, especially that they not have their body overwhelmed with toxic, ruined omega-6 oils that compete with the enzymes for converting ALA to DHA, etc.

          I never said that DHA is not responsible for the majority of omega-3 health benefits. I agree with that. I just said that once an individual is past the age of 1 year, they need so little additional DHA and EPA that without an overload of toxic ruined omega-6 oils, and with adequate diet, they are fine for life. After reading through the first link I provided above, I’ll adjust this and say it may be more like 2 years that a child’s growing brain can use supplemental DHA if it isn’t garnered from nursing or good preformed sources.

          The normal thing in human existence before the invention of baby formula and other processed foods, was that children who nursed for a year were fully stocked up on the omega-3 derivatives of DHA and EPA, and even a vegetarian or vegan diet left them with fine mental and visual faculties. Since 2002 in the USA, and earlier in Europe, infant formulas have had DHA included.

          Stay in good health!

          • marcus volke says

            Hello Glen, I wasn’t suggesting that people should take fish oil, I think we should get our Omega 3 by eating more fish. It is true that large quantities of DHA is not essential to survival after the age of 2 but it clearly has a significant effect on health outcomes. There is no shortage of studies demonstrating that regular consumption of oily fish significantly lowers mortality rates, and it has been proven to be therapeutic for a number of conditions – http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=203640

            I agree that most omnivores also aren’t getting enough omega 3. This is because they aren’t eating enough oily fish or pastured meat/eggs. Most omnivores are eating the SWD or Standard western diet, which is extremely unhealthy. Both vegans and SWD eaters could benefit from adding more oily fish to their diets.

      • marcus volke says

        Apart from apparently being written by evangelists christians and not resembling a credible study in any shape or form, the study you linked argues in favor of soy lecithin and choline. Not only is soy an extremely unhealthy food, but liver and egg yolks are more than ten times higher in choline than plant foods. More vegan nonsense.

        • Glenn Atkisson says

          Marcus, I think you skimmed the BodyBio article a bit too quickly. Lots of good information there. The only references there to lecithin and choline were warning of the dangers of each.

          And it mentioned that lecithin supplements are often sold as Phosphatidylcholine (PC) just because one of the components of lecithin is PC, but that they are different, and should not be confused.

          After that clarification, the article is not interested in lecithin.

          • marcus volke says

            Yes, I did skim the article, especially when I saw the reference to yeshua, that was a big red flag that it wasn’t worth my time reading. I wouldn’t use supplemental lecithin, but choline rich foods clearly have tremendous health benefits, as the article correctly points out.

  46. Laura says

    What’s the name of the algae that has the chain of Omega 3 we need? there are many algaes…I eat spirulina but I know it doesn’t have more Omega 3 than Omega 6…
    I eat fish (salmon) once a week but I dont want to need to eat it every day, there has to be another solution and it cannot be pills, we are suppose to find the natural remedies in nature, I don’t eat anything processed and that includes fish oil supplements (which btw I read it’s not beneficial at all..o course, like everything unnatural)

    • marcus volke says

      The algae with DHA in it is expensive and much lower in omega 3 than fish. There is a natural solution, it’s called eating more fish :) You only need to eat three 4 ounce servings of salmon a week to get enough omega 3 as long as you aren’t cooking with vegetable oils.

  47. Juan carlos says

    So in conclusion, eating nuts(high in omega3ALA and omega6), is a waste of money?
    -ALA conversion to DHA is poor.
    -omega6 is present everywhere(western diet)
    Personally I go fish. Not supplements.

    BTW, is there any value in ALA, apart from that poor conversion? I read it could be bad for your eyes.

  48. deb says

    I’m concerned about the heavy metal accumulation in our bodies from consuming as much fish and or omega 3 supplements…esp. Mercury. My blood work recently showed very high levels of Mercury. The salmon I eat is fresh caught, not farmed and I take krill oil supplements. Any thoughts? How do we avoid potentially consuming these metals?

  49. says

    Hi There,

    I tend to agree with some of the skeptics here. There seems to be a move to get a lot of ‘non animal product’ consumers, very uptight or concerned about this potential EPA and DHA supplementation issue.

    My personal view, is that when considering the amount of people who regularly indulge in the consumption of “alcohol” and the impact this has on the excretion of highly important pancreatic enzymes and liver function, this would seem to be more of a worry and most likely why there is such a high rate of myocardial infarctions (MIs) amongst other contributory factors attributed to the high w6 animal product intake and EVEN minimum requirement animal product intake due to malabsorption.

    Are we getting worried with good reason because there are a large number of vegan MIs occurring? Where are the large scale studies that EPA and DHA deficiencies are relating to a large number of vegan infarcts?

    Surely the fish cannot synthesize w3, so in light of this, surely a natural supplementation of sea vegetables or specific non mycotoxin inclusive algaes would provide sufficient dietary intake. Additionally it would seem that there is a lot of contamination of heavy metals, irradiation, plastics and other issues, surrounding modern day fish consumption.

  50. Wesley says

    I stopped reading when you said that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to have an iron deficiency than meat eaters. My girlfriend is a vegetarian/vegan (as am I, but only recently) and donated blood last week – her iron levels were excellent, whereas many of her fellow colleagues that eat meat had an iron deficiency.

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