Nutritional supplementation is a hot-button issue in the fitness industry today, and it likely always will be. There are countless viewpoints on the topic, and many misconceptions as well. While we won’t be delving deeply into the topic today, it is important to preface any supplement discussion by emphasizing that supplements are just that: supplements. They are meant to supplement a healthy diet, making up for what the body does not get through normal food consumption.
Knowing this, it is quite logical that as all human bodies are different and no two diets are exactly the same, supplement needs will vary with each individual. That said, there is one supplement I highly recommend for everyone, fish oil.
Now hang with me… we’re not quite done here.
Some of you may think you have this down. You may eat fish several times a week, or you may already take a fish oil supplement. That is great, and you are already a step ahead. However, whether you are one of those already getting fish oil in your diet, or if you are starting from ground-level, there are a few things you need to know about fish oil and how to it incorporate it into your diet.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fats:
Before we get into the importance of fish oil, we are going to briefly discuss the difference between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Let me preface this section by clarifying that Omega-6 fats DO play important roles in the body and are necessary part of a healthy diet. However, excess intake of Omega-6 can promote inflammation, high cholesterol, and depression, as well as increasing risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, essentially work to counteract the negative effects that can be caused by excess Omega-6 intake.
Basically, what this means is that we need a healthy balance of these two fats in our diets, a 1:1 ratio being ideal.
So how are we doing?
Yeah…Not that great…
Today’s typical North American diet is loaded with Omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are found in products containing corn oil, safflower oil, and meats from factory farms. This has led to a highly disproportionate intake of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3 fats. In fact, most people consume a ratio of the two somewhere between 10:1 to 20:1.
So, I’ll go ahead and give us a big “F” on that.
This may go a long way to explain why inflammation, high cholesterol, depression, cancer, and cardiovascular disease are so prevalent in America.
DHA and EPA:
Obviously the takeaway to this point is to increase Omega-3 fats and decrease Omega-6 fats. But where do you want to get these Omega-3 from?
Yes, fish oil… But before I get to that, let’s break things down just a little further. Don’t worry we won’t get too in-depth.
The 3 main Omega-3 fats are DHA, EPA, and ALA.
DHA and EPA are the Omega-3 fats you will find in fish oil. Together, they offer many benefits. DHA and EPA, in combination, have been shown to improve cognitive function, improve behavior and mood, reduce the liklihood of depression, reduce the risk of breast, colon and prostate cancer, and decrease both joint and systemic inflammation.
The third omega-3 fat, ALA, is found in nuts and seeds. Flax and chia seeds are two sources of ALA that have gained a fair amount of popularity. Some people argue that these are better sources of omega-3 than fish oil due to the fact that ALA can be convert by the body into DHA and EPA. However, before for you run to the store to fight Crossfit Mom for the last five packages of flaxseed, its worth noting that multiple studies show this conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA happens at an extremely low rate.
To this point we’ve used a lot of words to make a few points. So, in case you’re just joining in here’s what we’ve covered so far:
- More omega-3 and less omega-6
- ALA is cool, but DHA and EPA are where it’s at
Now, you may be wondering why you need a supplement instead of just eating fish. To be honest you may not. But before you jump to that conclusion here are a few things to consider:
- You need 1-3 grams of EPA and DHA per day
Many of the benefits we listed above were observed in studies where the subjects were consuming at least 1-3 grams per day. Subjects consuming less than 1-3 grams per day did not consistently exhibit the same benefits. To reach roughly 3 grams of DHA and EPA you would need to eat one of the following amounts of wild-caught fish on a daily basis:
- 7 oz. salmon
- 9 oz. tuna
- 14 oz. cod
- Get your fish oil from wild-caught fish
Most of the fish we purchase at our local grocery stores and eat at chain restaurants come directly from fish-farms. These farm-farmed fish are fed an unnatural diet full of antibiotics and live in an environment full of chemicals and pollutants. These fish also provide far less EPA and DHA per serving than their wild-caught counterparts. So, although more expensive, wild-caught is the way to go.
- Heavy metals and environmental toxins
Despite being far better than farmed-fish, wild-caught fish are not completely free of potentially harmful substances for consumers. Wild-caught fish may contain carcinogens, as well as a significant amount of mercury and other heavy metals they encounter in their environment. Consumed in large quantities over consistently over time, these substances can have adverse effects on the human body. That said, research suggests that the benefits of eating oily, wild-caught fish far out-weight any potential adverse effects. So instead of avoiding fish, limit your consumption to a couple times per week.
How to Supplement Fish Oil
Again, fish oil supplementation may not be necessary for everyone, but it is likely beneficial for most. If you have access to fresh, wild-caught fish that is low in mercury and other toxins (generally small fish), and you eat them on a daily basis, you may be set. However, for the rest of us, here are a few guidelines on how to properly supplement fish oil:
- Check amount of EPA and DHA
Remember, you need 1-3 grams of EPA and DHA per day, not just fish oil in general. Low quality fish oils will contain far less EPA and DHA.
- Small fish-based formulation
Purchased a supplement with a small fish-based formulation, such as herring or mackerel. These fish are far less likely to accumulate environmental toxins.
- Look for an expiration date
Make sure you can find an expiration date on the container and use it before that date.
Keeping your fish oil in the refrigerator will help avoid breakdown, or oxidation. This is also a good way to reduce those dreaded “fish burps.”
- Buy smaller bottles
Fish oil will maintain its quality for up to 40 days if refrigerated. As a rule of thumb, try to consume your entire bottle within a month of purchase.
- Take it multiple times per day
Depending on the quality of your fish oil supplement, you may likely have to take several pills per day to reach 1-3 grams of EPA and DHA. Try breaking this up into several servings over the course of the day. Take some with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Now it’s time for action!
Get out there and get yourself a quality fish oil. However, don’t expect the benefits to appear overnight. Be patient and persistent, and after about 6-8 weeks you will begin to feel the difference.