Why Fish Stomps Flax as a Source of Omega-3 | Chris Kresser
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Why Fish Stomps Flax as a Source of Omega-3

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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.

248 Comments

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  1. My daughter is allergic to fish, seeds like flaxseed, chia, sunflower, etc., eggs, and nuts. How can she get enough essential fatty acids with her dietary restrictions? I really appreciate any help.

    • I’m sorry your daughter has those allergies but look into spirulina. I have been taking 4 grams for over a year (1 & 1/2) and haven’t had an epileptic ‘drop attack’ for a year, when you black out and fall on your glutius maximus Or find out what foods have Omega 3’s – essential fatty acids are the key which don’t make you fat but enrich the bodily systems like: sinuses – breathing; digestive; candida.(intestinal fungus created by bad bacteria).

  2. If humans poorly convert plant omega 3s, do they also poorly convert plant omega 6s? If this were the case, would eating high ratio omega 6-3 foods such as nuts be a problem?

      • Forget the advise of these self promoting clown types. The blanket advice given here could effect your demise. Of particular concern would be ingesting, or even the touching of fresh raw cashews. Cashews are the false “seed” kernel fruit of the urushiol (caustic resin) producing giant poison-ivy (sumac, Anacardiaceae family) tree. Now that should send you a red flag! One wouldn’t think of eating fresh raw nettles and so should be the thoughts about eating anything in an unconventional manner. The processing of raw cashews is a manual labor nightmare, not lending itself to mechanical processing. The people whom work in cashew processing plants drop from employment like flies. As a rule, workers, harvesters and handlers become increasingly sensitized to urushiol over time, eventually exhibiting extreme allergic reaction. Fatalities are not unknown. Educate yourself to the point of being knowledgeable, don’t use yourself, your family or others as guinea pigs of ignorant notions. Just 50 years ago cashews and mixed nuts containing cashews were still retailed from candy-counter roasting stations and held at 180°F, which, besides simulating impulse sales, relieved retailers from being liable for any cashew related torts.

      • Yes, unfortunately, even experts are not making the distinction between whole, unprocessed seed oils and very toxic, corn oil. But the stats are interesting. Unadulterated Omega-6 is the answer.

  3. The inefficient metabolism of ALA to DHA & EPA is not inefficient, the time frame provides a stable level of ALA in plasma. Additionally the conversion process its self creates biological bi products critical to mediating the expression of inflammatory phases in cells.

  4. Where is your actual evidence that the body cannot use flax omega 3?? I call BS.

    Feel free to document your scientific study where this is the case.

    Until then, any article with the word “Stomp” in the title is likely to be BS.

    • I call BS too, because of the way it’s all worded.

      The author states that ALA doesn’t raise plasma levels? So? Where’s the evidence that plasma levels are important? He then states that our requirements aren’t met, because the conversion levels are small? So? How much do we really require? I’ve never seen anyone address that. It’s like someone telling you to put loads of brake fluid in your car, without wondering if it’s overflowing. Mammal bodies don’t have much DHA in them. There’s 10g in your brain, and very little else in other tissues. Why do we need to eat our whole body content of it in a week?

      He then recommends fish oil, without pointing out that it’s all unacceptably oxidized by the time it reaches us, and then we store it on the shelf for a year, until it’s toxic waste.

      Time for a skeptical reaction to all this science that doesn’t measure end-points, but concentrates on “theory”. Astrology is very similar.

        • Thanks, I’ve added some stuff to it. Mainly the 2015 NZ study that shows all supplements are oxidized junk.
          http://www.nature.com/srep/2015/150121/srep07928/full/srep07928.html
          http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2013/464921/

          The wikipedia article does have a big fat warning in it, that it relies too heavily on primary sources. This means that there is a lot of tendentious interpretation of random studies involving mice, or abstracts that don’t mention levels of DHA used, or done in vitro, or use Golden Algae instead of fish.

          It does helpfully point out that DHA supplementation helps mice with Alzheimer’s but not humans.

          The second article I linked, points out that oxidized omega 3 will create a chain reaction with other PUFAs you’ve eaten and make them toxic as well.

          Being fair, the way most people consume Omega 3 capsules, it’s likely not absorbed, so travels to the lower bowels, where it kills bacteria. (All omega 3s kill bacteria, see Huang, Ebersol).
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20331795

          I suspect it would be best to chew an omega 3 capsule, and use it for “oil pulling”, then spit it out.

          • You are doing some very, VERY good work, Chris Walker. Keep up the endeavor. Every subject Chris Kresser presents here needs additional input from the readers, because these subjects are impossible to fully cover, in a short article, but just starting the discussion tends to bring out some truly amazing findings. Kresser does his part, and others bring what they can contribute, and we all gain immensely. I’m very happy with the crowd who contributes here, and very thankful to Kresser for putting some important issues before us with a good introduction to the subjects.

            Down to the facts, I was amazed at the findings you’ve turned up Chris. Certainly the quality testing of omega-3 oils should have been an ongoing study, considering their fragility. What we have now, once the public comes up to speed with the findings, should be a marine-oil industry which just gives up and shuts up. For what assurance does the public have, even if fish-oil capsules are certified as safe at time of manufacture, that the product doesn’t degenerate in days or weeks once bottled and exposed to normal light, temperature and oxygen? DHA and EPA are not substances to be put on the shelf.

            It’s so, so much more reliable to depend on fresh foods for omega-3. Almost all foods have a trace. Let’s not fall victim to the “you need animal-soured” and “humans poorly convert” hype from the industry. These cons can easily be replace with a more prudent phrase like “Avoid ruined o-3 by shunning the supplements and depend only on freshly harvested foods for your intake.”

            So many people take supplements just to insure they get an adequate supply. They feel an “overly” adequate supply is an error on the safe side. As of today, it’s obvious the error can be disastrous, where supplements even in “less than adequate doses” can be toxic, while fresh, organic, whole foods can provide a safe alternative.

        • I’m a vegan who would like to stay a vegan. Can anyone weigh in on the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio? Because vegans don’t eat meat or dairy, are they more able to absorb and convert ALA to EPA and DHA?

          For those of you who have your blood tested, how often do you do so?

          • The actual optimal ratio is 2.5 to 1 Omega-6 to -3. Make sure it is not processed (no canola, soy or corn oil). The body converts just fine and as needed. The fallacy that we all convert too slowly was disproven years ago but some on this thread refuse to believe it. Go by how you feel, with vegans, you have to make sure you’re consuming enough raw product as well as enough protein.

            • Thank you for your response. I eat walnuts, chia seeds, and freshly ground flax seeds. I’ve been vegan for a decade because of compassion for animals and sea life but the health benefits are an extraordinary bonus.

        • Do you want to raise your testosterone levels? You may need to stop taking flaxseed. But don’t believe me, do your own research. Cheers 🙂

      • Zinzino Balance Oil is least oxydized due to mixing it with high levels of polyphenols in olive oil. Check it out!

        • I have been using Zinzino Balance oil for six months. Previously riddled with arthritis, I was completely pain-free within weeks. The polyphenals in the cold-pressed olive oil were certainly a contributor. In the ensuing six months my energy is through the roof and I have gone from 256lbs to 213lbs. No pain means I am active and the energy that can now be released by my cells means I WANT to move for the first time in my adult life. Zinzino has a blood test (processed at St. Olaf’s University in Trondheim, Norway) that gives you your omega 6:3 ratio, as well as your cell fluidity index and four other results. After 120 days of taking the supplement daily a second test reveals a 4:1 or better ratio. I was in because of the science. I am in for life because of how I feel and look. My doctor is now on it too.

          • I use that product too, best oil product there is! Also the “Extender” is really great!

      • Dr. Oz for one recommends 600-1000mg of DHA per day. I have seen that in other places as well. Since the conversion of ALA too the more important forms is pretty low, it sounds like you would just need a lot of ALA to make up the difference. Additionally, fish oil capsules are said to be up to 9 times less absorb able than eating whole fish. It’s recommended taking fish oil with a fatty meal to help absorption. Personally I supplement with some fish oil and eat fish to help get enough.

        • Wrong, the conversion is low because it is supposed to be low. Most ALA and LA stays in its native form because that’s how it works best. After billions of years of refinement, nature wouldn’t make such a stupid mistake.

      • I resent the implication that there is something inherently deficient about astronomy. Cite your sources and don’t just drop allegorical bombs.

    • Omega-6 fatty acids are suggested to metabolize to the site-specific anti-inflammatory ecosinoid, PGE1. These particular prostaglandins are suggested in peer-reviewed published literature to reduce ocular surface inflammation, as well as reduce the inflammatory process associated with meibomitis and reduced lacrimal gland aqueous output. Omega-6 fatty acids have been given a bad rap by well-meaning, but misinformed medical writers. It is true that the typical American diet is overloaded with omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) from vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils, which are added to nearly all processed foods. Many pantries are far too full of overly processed crackers, chips, cookies, and cakes and the omega-6 oils that oxidize too quickly and become pro-inflammatories.

      However, good health also depends on omega-6 gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is a downstream metabolite of omega-6 linoleic acid, and is found in sources such a black currant seed oil, borage oil, and evening primrose oil. This compound is a necessary component in the downstream metabolism of omega-6 fatty acid to the series one anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (PGE1s), which are associated with healthy mucosal tissue and healthy tear film. The human body cannot metabolize omega-3 fatty acids to these specific anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

      Most omega-6 fatty acids are consumed in (polyunsaturated) vegetable oils as linoleic acid (LA). Excessive intake of LA is unhealthy, because it can promote inflammation if it is not properly metabolized. In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids that are successfully metabolized or those that have the metabolic advantage of containing gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) reduce inflammation after further metabolizing to dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), which also blocks, when appropriate, the pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid conversion.

    • Successful DGLA downstream metabolism of omega-6 to the anti-inflammatory PGE1 is secured by omega-3 EPA (preferably fish oil) blockage of arachidonic acid if those particular omega-3 metabolites are present in the body. Adequate amounts of nutrient cofactors in the body—including magnesium; vitamins A, C, and B6; zinc; and gamma tocopherols—stabilize both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and enhance the delta-6-desaturase enzymatic conversion of omega 6 fatty acid from LA to GLA to DGLA to the anti-inflammatory PGE1. They also enhance the delta-6 and 5-desaturase enzymatic conversion of omega-3 alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) to EPA/DHA and the series three anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This could possibly explain the benefits attributed to omega-3 fatty acids.

      Omega-6 and Hydrogenation

      The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil do not include any GLA; therefore, utilization of flaxseed is totally dependent on the unpredictable delta 6 enzymatic conversion of its LA to GLA. As an omega-3 fatty acid, flax does not contain EPA/DHA either; therefore it is, totally dependent on both the delta 6 and delta 5 enzymatic conversion of its high-content alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) to EPA/DHA, which is required to produce the series three anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. All fatty acids compete for the same metabolic desaturase, so, for good health the goal should be to consume fewer trans fat omega-6s and more GLA omega-6s and DHA/EPA omega-3s.

      • It’s because the underlying assumption is wrong. Does it really make any sense that millions of years of evolution have got it wrong for so long?

        • Your assertion that EPA and DHA has a low influence on human health, that’s not an assumption? Do you have clear evidence seed oils have been a primary year round staple in man’s diet for millions of years? Do you have refuting evidence debunking the n-6 to n-3 4:1 ratio providing better health markers? Especially in neurological health?

          There’s strong existing evidence that man, over millions of years lived a nomadic, active, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, all the while developing a large fatty brain and tall, muscular, athletic body. As a result, man regularly required a large amount of nutritious calories or died before reproductive age. So, which would more effectively provide these large requirements? Would it have been the year-round, widely available animals and fish, or would it have been the occasional, seasonal, tuber, small bitter fruit, and hand-full of hard to digest seeds? I’m just spit balling here, but I’d say the regular supply of large animals and fatty fish (and their organs) wins by a long shot.

          So the answer to your question is clear, millions of years of evolution did not get it wrong.

          • How did we fish millions of years ago? We ate mostly meat, the meat contains all those healthy Omega-6 and Omega-3 from plant sources as they are grazers. I really don’t see bison eating too much fish. We simply make enough EPA/DHA from the Essential Fatty Acids. We don’t need to supplement from dwindling fish stocks that are not part of our ancestral diet anyways. The only reason we need seed oils today is that we are feeding ourselves and our farm animals adulterated oils from processed food. If you stick to a diet where all your meat comes from game or naturally raised animals, you would be healthy and broke.

            • Fish were not part of our ancestral diet? Over 2/3 of earth is covered in water, but man just ignored all the plentiful bounty it provided in favor of a handful of seasonal seeds? Also, all the numerous artifacts that show man fished regularly, they were planted just about everywhere by fraudulent archaeologists?

              It’s estimated today’s wild grazing mammals and grass-fed livestock have a 3:1 n-6:n-3 ratio. So it’s safe to say the bison, mammoths, and mastodons of long ago very likely had the same profile if not higher on n-3 side.

              I still fail to see any evidence from you that occasionally eating a handful of seeds is going to provide the minimum 4:1 n-6:n-3 ratio without eating a very very low fat/calorie diet, to which I pointed out, our ancestor would not voluntarily choose to do nor could successfully survive on, given the alternatives.

              BTW, I eat wild caught fish and grass-fed beef and I’m not broke, and I don’t think upper paleolithic man needed to carry a debit card.

    • It’s a typical journalistic tactic these days to use exaggerations in the title. Fluffington Post is one of the worst for doing this.

      I agree completely with you. I should have known better than to open it. Flax Seed is the obvious healthy choice. I don’t care if I have a mercury deficiency due to not eating fish and as fishing is hardly a sustainable practice, I’ll choose flax for ethical reasons as well.

  5. Does anyone have suggestions for vegetarians who don’t want to take fish oil supplements but need to add a good omega 3 source? Is the flax still better than nothing, or are there any better plant based alternatives? Do eggs and dairy have decent levels of omega 3 in them?

    • Nicole, there are all kinds of sources of omega-3 that are vegetable based. You don’t have to get it from the “high donors” that you hear mentioned all the time. I do like the list provided in the link from Omega3Movement though!

      I agree with Jorge’s original post that there is usually no problem with the body deriving sufficient omega-3 across it’s entire food base, whether or not it includes any fish, whether or not it includes any animal foods. The truth is that we require very little omega-3 and we can get sufficient amounts from fresh, organic foods of many types.

      Further, DHA is a derivative of omega-3. The body derives only what it needs from the parent omega-3 fatty acid. Chris says this conversion “doesn’t work well”. In the name of the history of our species, I beg to differ. Chris says a new-born having been supplemented with DHA will have more DHA in the brain than one that wasn’t supplemented. But physiologically, a human collects omega-3 from it’s diet and redistributes the derived DHA to the brain continually for 2 or 3 years AFTER birth during the time of major brain development. Thus, the “normal” human brain, regardless of where the human was born in this world, regardless of food, has always had sufficient DHA to survive and carry on the genes of the species.

      Whether or not they, or their nursing mothers ate high-content fish, etc., humans obviously have been a successful species, from times way before we invented supplements. The conversion of consumed omega-3 fats to DHA and EPA has been ongoing for millions of years.

      Until someone can prove that we can, (and need to), grow “super” humans by supplementing DHA to newborns, I’d say we shouldn’t worry about shortages except to try to improve our diets to contain only the highest quality foods.

      • Nothing you said contradicts the original article, but you have phrased it in a way to make it seem so.

        However, your conclusions are disappointing in their appeals.

        You mention the accumulation of DHA over the course of two to three years following birth, but don’t mention levels of DHA with comparisons between ALA supplementation vs. direct DHA supplementation.

        You mention that we as a species have been successful, but give no credit or thought to whether or not an ancestral diet high in DHA is part of the reason for that. You’re basically ignoring what the diet was and somehow concluding we don’t need the same amount of DHA.

        And, perhaps my biggest annoyance with your post: trying to equate the supplementation of DHA to babies as the same as trying to make a “super” baby, when the whole point is to realize our body has evolved over millions of years, yet in only the past 100 have our diets become radically processed. The supplementation of something like DHA isn’t to make a super baby, but to try to bring up the levels of consumption to what they have been before these very recent times.

        • Then you should supplement the the 2 essential fatty acids, Linoleic and alpha-Linoleic acid and let nature do its job. You should not be supplementing with overdoses of derivatives that can throw the whole fatty acid cascade into a mess as there is a negative feedback loop created by too many derivatives.

        • What: I have an open mind to your criticism.

          Generally, your points are well taken because to be brief, I appealed only to your (and others) logic and provided no studies to prove my point. If the logic fails to come across, I’m sorry for that. As I’ve said before on this particular article, it’s difficult to present a whole case in a short comment.

          To clarify, when I mentioned DHA accumulation, I meant it was a normal body function of deriving the DHA from natural foods containing alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). No supplementation involved whatsoever.

          You said ” You’re basically ignoring what the diet was and somehow concluding we don’t need the same amount of DHA.” You are right that I ignored the diet. My point was that no study has shown that a 3-year old is consistently coming up short on brain-DHA anywhere in the world these days. With that, I feel somewhat safe in ignoring diet. On the surface, it seems we can all ignore diet on this one point. I don’t necessarily feel secure in saying that, but it seems that DHA is one substance that human infants are supremely capable of collecting a goodly supply of regardless of their diet conditions. But I won’t claim that there aren’t some shortages in some situation. I just say: “Look, this is amazing how well humans derive this stuff from the small quantities that they ingest.” It’s sort of a wake up call to the other side which is trying to get all modern humans to take supplements of many things. There are a lot of minerals and vitamins and other nutrients that are proven to be short in 3 year old humans, but DHA doesn’t seem to be one of these. Conversely, providing it as a supplement can be dangerous. More later….

          As to you saying “…and somehow concluding we don’t need the same amount of DHA.”, no, that is your conclusion. I didn’t say that. I’m happy with the present day human, child or adult, needing the same amount of DHA in the brain and the whole body that we’ve always needed since we began life on the planet.

          I didn’t equate DHA with trying to grow “super babies”. I said unless one has that as a goal, I saw no reason for supplementation if healthy foods are available. In other words, I’m willing to admit that, as you say, food PROBABLY WAS of a higher quality over 100 years ago, and there MIGHT be a chance of shortages in nutrients these day, INCLUDING alpha-lenolenic acid to allow creation of sufficient DHA. I was mostly trying to make the point that DHA shortage, for most cases, is one of the least of our worries.

          Finally though, if you are really interested in “to supplement DHA or not” you should consider reading some of Dr. Jeff’s comments here. He dwells more on the actual dangers of supplementing DHA in amounts so great (but the standard adult dose!) that quickly, the human body can be thrown into an imbalance that it would never reach if it were ingesting only natural, whole foods. This is a serious situation and is playing with people’s psychological condition. Read more here:

          http://www.bodybio.com/BodyBio/docs/BodyBioBulletin-4to1Oil.pdf

          Please read the case studies at the end to see a clinician’s perspective on what overdoses of fish oils are doing to people.

          Stay well.

          • Interesting but our research is aligned, read the article and it conforms with almost everything I have been trying to educate on for the past 3 years. Quite an uphill battle.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Yes! Due to the negative impact that acquiring fish and/or krill oil has had on our environment, scientists decided to go straight to the source. What’s the source? Algae.

      For more information about the benefits of algae-derived omega-3, see http://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2012/algae-dha-healthy-as-fish-oil/. There are loads of other sources on this subject as well.

      NatureMade makes an algae-derived omega-3 supplement: http://www.naturemade.com/fish-oil-and-omegas/vegetarian-omega-3

      Happy Vegetarianism!

    • It is not the same, but I think hemp oil is a good choice. Rich in ALA, but extra interesting because it also has GLA. (Saves you from one conversion). ALA may convert to the omega3 you find in fish, and here it is important to be aware of what you need in your diet to optimize this metabolism. Zink and magnesium are two things I recall, reducing LA is another. There are some seeplants which contain long chained omega 3, and I also think some fermented soya, with special fungus also contains those fatty acids.

    • Try purslane (portuluca) – generally regarded as a weed but it is often remembered for makes a smashing carpet of colorful flowers on the lawn. Purslane (aka pigweed, hogweed) is brimming with Omega-3. Unfortunately it also contains high oxalates. Cooking it can reduce oxalates but I like the crunchiness when added to or eaten as a salad green.

    • You could look into Seabuckthorn Oil. Research a good PURE source, Fruit Oil (also seed & fruit oil) I am loving this oil right now as is my Dog. I also have it in Teabags! It has the Omega’s + hard to find Omega 7 and naturally occurring Vitamin E. I am avoiding Flaxseed/oil also leary of fish oils these days, there are also articles about the absence of Vit. E when taking fish oils, vit E is necessary to properly metabolize(?) the omega’s. Best of luck to you.

  6. What is AA? It just popped out of nowhere in the 2nd bullet under “Several other observations support the hypothesis that DHA is essential:”. It was never mentioned or named previous to that nor after it.

    • Sorry, arachidonic acid was mentioned a few paragraphs later (s/b before) but after AA was used six times.

  7. I get heart palpations when I take fish oil. I was looking into flaxseed as an alternative when I came across your article. Sounds like flaxseed would be a waste of money. Is there another altnernative since the fish oil supplement causes my heart to race? Thanks!

    • Rebecca,

      If by getting heart palpitations you mean that your heart rate increases, it is highly unlikely that this has occurred as a result of eating only fish oil supplements, particularly where there are no stimulants (like caffeine) in the fish oil formulation. The question is what else are you eating at the same time?

      “Heart palpitations are a feeling that your heart is beating too hard or too fast, skipping a beat, or fluttering. You may notice heart palpitations in your chest, throat, or neck. Heart palpitations can be bothersome or frightening. They usually aren’t serious or harmful, though, and often go away on their own. Most of the time, they’re related to stress and anxiety or to consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. Palpitations also often occur during pregnancy.”

      It is much more likely that are are getting anxious.

      • Dear Rebecca
        Are you getting this everytime you take fish oil? Pl check with your doctor. Also have you tried changing the time of the day you take? My point is this is very important and you shouldn’t ignore this.

    • Rebecca,

      If by getting heart palpitations you mean that your heart rate increases, it is highly unlikely that this has occurred as a result of eating only fish oil supplements, particularly where there are no stimulants (like caffeine) in the fish oil formulation. The question is what else are you eating at the same time?

      “Heart palpitations are a feeling that your heart is beating too hard or too fast, skipping a beat, or fluttering. You may notice heart palpitations in your chest, throat, or neck. Heart palpitations can be bothersome or frightening. They usually aren’t serious or harmful, though, and often go away on their own. Most of the time, they’re related to stress and anxiety or to consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. Palpitations also often occur during pregnancy.”

      It is much more likely that you are simply getting anxious.

  8. Also, you fail to recognize that in the chart you show above, much of the Omega-6 goes into PGE1, the most potent anti-inflammatory in the body, relatively little goes to AA, and most of the Omega-6 actually stays in it’s native form, making up 25 to 33% of the cell membrane. The Omega-3 pathways are minor in amount and importance. If you are going to present on a complicated topic such as this, you must have a basic understanding of biochemistry.

    • You are right on all the point you made on all three posts today Dr. Jeff. And you are also right that there is more to this subject than Chris (or any of us posters) can manage to get written down here. This discussion has been going on for over 4 years. It began before Fukushima changed the value of the fish in an entire ocean. I made my first comment here almost 4 years ago and it was much like the comments you’ve made today.

      But I think it’s still right and valuable that you are bringing us around to considering once again that ingesting capsules containing some highly refined substance is going to be a solution to ingesting another toxic and highly refined substance. Fish oil doesn’t fix an overdose of adulterated seed oils. Omega “balancing” at this late stage in the game of toxins is just ludicrous.

      Native state omega-6 is a valuable substance, and so is parent omega-3. We should just leave nature alone and eat whole, organic food, and we will be well nourished.

      The comment many months ago relating to vegans living into the 90’s and 100’s should not be taken lightly. It’s not just dismissible because of statistics. If people live that long with no fish/meat/egg sources of parent omega-3, let alone abnormal amounts of the DHA and EPA derivatives, then something is seriously wrong with the argument that we need to supplement with those substances. You said that very well, and I still agree.

      • It doesn’t help to cite something that is wrong in so many places that referring to it questions the objectivity of the speaker:

        http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=15903

        The actual issue is simpler, changing the balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids in the body. As to refined fish oils, should we go back to natural remedies like Foxglove and forget about other modern treatments that use science and technology? This is my last post because I expect people to be objective, period. In this area, objective means agreeing with the evidence that has been replicated for accuracy. Not getting lost in opinions.

    • The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil do not include any GLA; therefore, utilization of flaxseed is totally dependent on the unpredictable delta 6 enzymatic conversion of its LA to GLA. As an omega-3 fatty acid, flax does not contain EPA/DHA either; therefore it is, totally dependent on both the delta 6 and delta 5 enzymatic conversion of its high-content alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) to EPA/DHA, which is required to produce the series three anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. All fatty acids compete for the same metabolic desaturase, so, for good health the goal should be to consume fewer trans fat omega-6s and more GLA omega-6s and DHA/EPA omega-3s.

  9. And calling DHA “essential” is wrong, it is a derivative. Only Linoleic Acid (Omega-6, 18 carbons long with 2 double bonds) and Alpha Linoleic Acid (Omega-3, 18 carbons long with 3 double bonds) are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s). All others are derivatives. Please use correct nomenclature when talking about fatty acids, it leads to so much confusion and mis-information.

    • It is true, only LA and ALA is essential, although, when taken into consideration the metabolisms required for LA to become PGE1, and for ALA to take part in production of series three prostaglandines, most people are unlikely to end up with a healthy balance. In some cases the convertion is so poor that you may as well, in practical terms, call DHA/EPA omega-3s for essential.

  10. Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is a lot more complicated than what is presented here. Fish may have more Omega-3, but it sits in the #2 position of the triglyceride chain, so stereochemistry studies tell us it is a lot less bio available than the Omega-3 from flax seed where it is in the #1 and #3 positions. If you actually look at well done studies, you will find that the conversion of Omega 3 to DHA/EPA is on the order of 0.02%, and that’s the way Mother Nature intended it. We are overdosing on fish oil. We need lots of essential plant based, unprocessed Omega-6 in our diet. I don’t see gorillas fishing or taking fish oil, they seem to do quite well on seeds and nuts.

    • Just curious about comments regarding stereo-isomerism; are you a medical doctor or PhD or other? Everything discussed here is more complicated than is presented, but that does not invalidate certain conclusions. To suggest that one should greatly increase Omega 6 consumption because of certain biochemical pathways ignores that fact that the typical diet already includes waaaaay too much Omega 6 fatty acids and has disrupted the balance, which should be closer to 1:1, not 17:1 Omega 6/Omega 3. Given the lesser amounts of Omega 3 relative to Omega 6, it makes sense to take fish oils, particularly IF one does not eat cold water fish. One should strive to achieve biochemical balance.

      There are some benefits of Omega 6, but in most it presumes that the ratios are what they recommend at the end, not what they currently are for most people on Western diets still stupid with the disproven diet-heart hypothesis. The best book I have seen about this of all the stuff that I have read over the years is “The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. Best objective assessment than any academic I have ever seen (except for Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD).

      Here is a website I just Googled for the first time that seems to do a decent job in the pros and cons:

      http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega6-fatty-acids

      In conclusion, I believe that Chris is correct in his recommendations. One has to realize that most people will not or cannot do these things because of engrained habit patterns, lack of will, etc., but if they do only SOME of what he says, then they will win in the end.

      • Sorry, just saw this post. You are wrong, I do not say greatly increase your Omega-6 but realize that the Omega-6 in our diet is highly adulterated which makes it harmful. Just trying to increase your Omega-3 intake does not work. Also, fish oil contains the wrong Omega-3. It does not follow biochemical pathways. I am a medical doctor and biochemist.

        • You said: “We need lots of essential plant based, unprocessed Omega-6 in our diet.”

          Biochemical pathways are great (I love mechanisms) but what occurs is not always what those pathways predict.

          What is your goal in this thread? It would be helpful to simply summarize your assertions instead of saying that everyone else is wrong. Otherwise it appears that you are going up against recent research that says otherwise, including what Chris has said. I think that most people are interested in what they can do to get back to 1:1 ratios. If you disagree with this, then please clearly state why.

          If there is such a BIG difference between adulterated Omega 6 FA’s and non-refined ones, does this means that there is an equally BIG difference in pro-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory properties? If true, it would be useful to show HOW how this occurs.

          • Well where to start. Why do you think most processed foods contain adulterated Omega-6? How do you extend shelf life of a product? There are only 2 way when it comes to fatty acids, prevent them from absorbing oxygen (adulterating them) or not exposing them to oxygen (much more expensive). These adulterated Omega-6 (LA) get taken up and placed in our cell and especially our mitochondrial membranes. They do not absorb oxygen, therefore the mitochondria do not absorb oxygen, leading to anaerobic metabolism, build up of lactic and pyruvic acid resulting in a sick cell that calls for help by releasing inflammatory factors. It is all readily explainable by biochemistry that has been known since 1960, but we choose to ignore older and more thoroughly done old research in favour of “modern” publish or perish garbage that is produced today.

      • Yes I heard Nina interviewed, she read all the same literature I did, so we are aligned in that way. Interesting about P and G’s control of the American Heart Association. Very diabolical of them.

    • Successful DGLA downstream metabolism of omega-6 to the anti-inflammatory PGE1 is secured by omega-3 EPA (preferably fish oil) blockage of arachidonic acid if those particular omega-3 metabolites are present in the body. Adequate amounts of nutrient cofactors in the body—including magnesium; vitamins A, C, and B6; zinc; and gamma tocopherols—stabilize both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and enhance the delta-6-desaturase enzymatic conversion of omega 6 fatty acid from LA to GLA to DGLA to the anti-inflammatory PGE1. They also enhance the delta-6 and 5-desaturase enzymatic conversion of omega-3 alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) to EPA/DHA and the series three anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This could possibly explain some of the benefits attributed to omega-3 fatty acids.

  11. If you want to discuss inflammation then it is about balance. Vegans don’t get much omega-6 and that’s why they don’t need much omega-3 to balance the cellmembrans out. Under 4:1 will lower the risk of cardiovascular desiases by 70%
    The more omega-6 you get the more omega-3 you need to stop inflammation. It is about the balance!

  12. The article appears convincing but it’s clear, if you do any simple research, that it isn’t. Dr. Ellsworth Wareham is 99 and has been a vegan for over 50 years. Donald Watson was a vegan who lived to age 95. Loreen Dinwiddie was 109 when she died in Sep 2014. She states she was vegan as of 1922.
    I could go on with a huge list of vegans past and present that are world record holders, champions, healthy, and have long lasting stamina.

    It’s clear something is missing from your research even if you can’t explain it, but to deny this fact is absurd.
    Nun Amen-Ra, Catra Corbet, Serena and Venus Williams, Tim Shieff, Patrik Baboumian, Jim Morris, Murray Rose, Seba, Megan Duhamel, Mac Danzig, Alexey Voyevoda, Jonas von Essen (world memory champion 2013), Brendan Brazier, Mike Fremont, Carl Lewis, John Salley, Torre Washington, Pat Neshek, David Carter, Richard Campbell,…. All Vegans!
    Peace!

    • The article that is being discussed is the difference between sources of fish oil, why on earth are you enumerating the life expectancy of these vegans? Okay, they are all vegans so what? what is being discussed here are the different source of Omega 3. There are millions of people on this earth with different variety of diet where the life expectancy varies and not just some popular individuals you know that have died at an old age. You vegans are starting bark at the wrong tree, again. We got it, that made you feel healthy being a vegan and the others are already dead, now you can keep your list and stay healthy… Lets get back to the topic – Sources of Omega 3.

      • His post is relevant. If fish oil stomps flax, as is the topic of this discussion, and it is good for the brain, i.e. it increases brain power, then surely the world memory champine would consume fish oil rather than a plant based alternative because it would be better for him. He also wouldn’t be a vegan either. Fact is following a whole foods plant based diet is good for you. Also Frank Medrano is a vegan and have you seen the body on that guy? I’m not saying all vegans are body builders and memory champines, but some are. That goes for omnivores too. My point is that there is nothing detrimental about a whole foods plant based diet so long as it is administered correctly.

    • It’s great that these people lived to a grand old age, exceeding the norm. However the rates, causes, and ages at death for vegans and meat eaters are approximately the same. That is a fact. Identifying outliers is meaningless because you have to consider the entire Bell Curve distribution. But you are going to believe whatever you wanna believe, so have at it.

      • Well said. There is a clear difference on the web, when it comes to blog comments – some are useful and some are useless. An educated person’s comment is very valuable, while emotional comments tend to be irrelevant to the core of the topic. After being a vegetarian for several months, to get control over my varied body conditions, and during a detox effort, i not only ate fruits/veg/antioxidants in excess, but also sparingly included salmon in my diet. In cases where there is an ailment, the benefit of fish/omega-3 has been studied – but is ALA (flax seed etc) enough for a healthy person ? I have not seen a study on that yet.

        • If I am not mistaken (have not reviewed the message some weeks ago), Chris already addressed this, correctly noting that the EFAs from flax seed or flax seed oil are poorly metabolized, therefore fish oil is better.

    • So you’ve named many vegans and vegetarians that have had long lives. That doesn’t prove anything.

      If you are going to rely on numbers to prove your point, at least provide some basic statistics like expected lifespans for vegan/vegetarians vs non vegan/vegetarians.

  13. I think it’s selfish of humans to continue pillaging the oceans for fish when its well documented that the oceanic fish populations are dramatically shrinking, and many species are listed as in danger of extinction due to over-fishing. There are many sea creatures who can only survive by eating aquatic creatures, e.g. dolphins, seals, penguins. Humans don’t . We can get omega 3 from algae which is a superior source and the exact same source that fish get their omega 3 from. Stop stealing food from animals who are dependent on that food and think more deeply about your choices….and if you want humanely, ethically farmed fish, let the farms know.

    • I read at Mercola.com that the Omega-3 from algae is unbalanced and not recommended – unfortunately. Chris’s point about the limited conversion of botanical source would logically make the one from deep sea fish the better option but there are concerns about getting good, clean, unpolluted Omega-3 from the latter. I read that fish oils that have been “molecularly distilled” or pharmaceutical grades are safe(r). Another option would be to eat smaller fish like anchovies… which happens to be the only fish that I eat. Cjuan

  14. 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.

    • Yes, I agree. This is the point at which I knew I couldnt trust this article. Almost every article I have read from a variety or sources state that vegetarians are no less likely to be iron deficient that non-vegetarians.

      • You guys take a complex issue and improperly simplify it so as to promote your world view. This is not what the objective person does; he examines ALL the evidence. Iron is supplied exogenously; the main reason that the body does not have a regulatory mechanism for iron as it does for calcium, potassium and sodium (as well as chloride) is that we evolved in an iron-deficient environment.

        No matter what the diet or extreme dietary view (vegans), it boils down to absorbing more iron than is lost; women lose iron on a regular basis during their childbearing years and iron deficiency is much more prevalent than too much stored body iron. The main problem with current Western meat based diets is iron overload, particularly in men. Take a look at these websites to understand the issues in greater depth:

        http://www.irondisorders.org/diet/

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_deficiency

      • In my later comments about this issue, I forgot to mention that Blood Centers only check the hemoglobin and hematocrit (H/H) before blood donation. They do NOT check the stored iron levels in the body, which is the most important assessment of all in regards to iron status.

        As long as the stored iron levels are above zero, there is enough iron to keep the H/H within normal range. This means that having a “normal” H/H is NOT the same as concluding that that the iron levels in the body are optimal. It simply means that they are above zero. If you want to find out how much stored iron your friend has, get a serum ferritin level test.

        The goal should be to balance the stored amount of iron without having too much stored iron as well as making sure that there is sufficient stored iron to meet emergencies. For example, if the stored iron levels are near zero, then whenever significant blood loss occurs, the iron attached to hemoglobin molecules is lost and therefore must be replaced by the stored iron levels. If there is insufficient iron, then the H/H has no choice but to go lower.

        Note that this is different than the normal “turnover” of red blood cells, where the iron from broken down red blood cells is reused for new red blood cells. Each day there is a very small amount of iron that is irretrievably lost so that some iron in the diet is absolutely necessary for good health.

  15. 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.

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