If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already concluded that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for your health. Whether you are using them to decrease inflammation, improve brain health, heart health, regulate mood or immune function; or just maintaining optimal wellness- omega-3 fatty acids are highly effective. So now the question is, can you get enough of these healthy fats from my diet, or do you need to supplement?
Fish is perhaps, the most popular food suggested for omega-3 intake. This is because of its high EPA and DHA content. EPA and DHA are the most readily available forms of omega-3s for your body. Although obtaining omega-3’s from plant sources such as: flax, walnuts, tofu or pumpkin seeds is doable, we are only getting the ALA form this way. The ALA form of omega-3s is not converted efficiently in our body to the active forms we need. So, although our intake of omegas may be high, the useable amount is low- due to this poor conversion.
On top of providing omega-3 fatty acids, fish has several other health benefits. Fish can be a lean source of protein and it contains vitamin D and B2 as well as minerals such as zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. 1 The Canadian Heart Association recommends about 2 servings of fish every week.
If we’re looking at just omega-3 fatty acid intake, fish may not be the only answer. The amount of omega-3s in a serving will depend on the type of fish. A general rule is that the fattier and oilier the fish is, the more omegas it contains. On average, there’s about 200-500mg of omega-3 fatty acids per one ounce of fish. 2 The target intake of omega-3 fatty acids will depend on what you are trying to accomplish by taking them. If you are just looking to maintain your health, 2-3 grams per day should be sufficient. If you are looking to use omegas for heart disease or to lower cholesterol levels, that dose may need to be closer to 4g per day, depending on individual needs. When omegas are used to decrease inflammation for a condition like arthritis, intake will need to be closer to 7g. 3,4,5
Now, let’s say, you aren’t looking to use omegas clinically and you just want to maintain good health so you’re aiming for about 2.5g per day. And let’s say you only eat fish with the top sources of omega-3s, such as salmon or mackerel, so you’re getting 500mg of omegas for every 1 oz of fish. This gives us 4g of omega-3 fatty acids per 8oz serving. This means, you’d have to consume fish at least 4 times per week (up to 11 times if you had a lower potency fish) just to obtain the maintenance dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Even if you love fish, that’s a lot of fish.
Not only is the above amount of fish completely unattainable for most, it also has health implications. Just like with any food, we can have too much of a good thing. A major issue with eating too much fish is the heavy metal content, mainly mercury. Mercury has several health implications. It is neurotoxic, and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, reproductive and mental health disorders. 6,7
It has also been tied to poor cardiovascular health as well as developmental problems in children. 8 Fish is one of the greatest sources of mercury that we are exposed to due to the accumulation of mercury along the food chain. To limit the accumulation of this harmful toxin, it is recommended that fish be limited to approximately 3 servings per week and 1-2 servings per week of for pregnant women.
Another issue with eating excessive amounts of fish is the increasing amounts of pollutants in the ocean such as dioxin. Dioxin is a type of pollutant which also accumulates in the fat of fish and can lead to developmental, immunological and reproductive health issues in humans. 9 Microplastics contaminating our oceans and fish, is yet another issue to be aware of when over-consuming fish.
Fish is still a healthy option and plays an important role in a healthy diet. We just don’t want to over consume (potentially taking in toxic levels) just to get the amount of omega-3s we’re looking for.
A high quality, pharmaceutical grade fish oil on the other hand, will have the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids, with none of those listed toxins above. It is also easier to control your ratios of EPA and DHA with a specific fish oil, depending on what your therapeutic goals are.
*Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement*
1. Seafood Health Facts: Making Smart Choices. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood-nutrition/healthcare-professionals/fish-and- shellfish-nutrient-composition
Baldwin, G. B. (2018). Epidemiology of Sports Concussion in the United States. Handb Clin Neurol , 158:63-74.
3. Cleland, L. G., James, M. J., & Proudman, S. M. (2005). Fish oil: what the prescriber needs to know. Arthritis research & therapy, 8(1), 202.
4. Artham, S. M., Lavie, C. J., Milani, R. V., Anand, R. G., O'Keefe, J. H., & Ventura, H. O. (2008). Fish oil in primary and secondary cardiovascular prevention. Ochsner Journal, 8(2), 49-60.
5. Weitz, D., Weintraub, H., Fisher, E., & Schwartzbard, A. Z. (2010). Fish oil for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Cardiology in review, 18(5), 258.
6. Siblerud, R., Mutter, J., Moore, E., Naumann, J., & Walach, H. (2019). A Hypothesis and Evidence That Mercury May be an Etiological Factor in Alzheimer’s Disease. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 5152.
7. Bhan, A., & Sarkar, N. N. (2005). Mercury in the environment: effect on health and reproduction. Reviews on environmental health, 20(1), 39-56.
8. Genchi, G., Sinicropi, M. S., Carocci, A., Lauria, G., & Catalano, A. (2017). Mercury exposure and heart diseases. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(1), 74.
9. White, S. S., & Birnbaum, L. S. (2009). An overview of the effects of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds on vertebrates, as documented in human and ecological epidemiology. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part C, 27(4), 197-211.