The Who/What/When/Why of Fish Oil

fish oil

Do you take fish oil? Do you think you should, but not sure exactly why? Or have you never even considered taking fish oil? This post will explain what fish oil is, and why you should seriously consider making it part of your daily routine.

Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Let’s start with some background. There are two types of fatty acids you need to know about: omega-6 and omega-3. Both play important roles in our bodies, but at the end of the day you can simplify their roles into the following: omega-3 is anti-inflammatory and omega-6 is inflammatory.

The major sources of Omega-6 in our diets are unhealthy oils (palm, sunflower and soybean), crackers and cereals, nuts and seeds, and corn-fed beef. The major sources of omega-3 are cold-water fish and shellfish. Before the introduction of grains, unhealthy fats, and artificial substances into our diets, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was around 1:1. Today, we consume at least 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3. The problem is that excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids can promote inflammation, which is a key step in many chronic diseases. (Remember this article?)

What are the Benefits of Fish Oil?

By adding a fish oil supplement to your daily routine, you can restore balance to your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. The benefits are many, including:

  • Improved heart health
  • Improved brain health
  • Increased protein synthesis (aka improved recovery from workouts!)
  • Enhanced immune function
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Reduced triglyceride levels

But I Eat Paleo!

Eating a Paleolithic diet goes a long way towards correcting the imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3. However, even on a paleo diet you can get into trouble if you’re eating a large number of nuts and seeds and still eating conventional (aka corn-fed) beef. To correct the imbalance, you can start by eating fish a couple times a week, and choose grass-fed beef over corn fed beef whenever possible. Grass-fed beef has about 5 times the omega-3 content as corn fed beef! (More on this here.) The moral of the story – unless you eat grass-fed beef and fish as your primary protein sources, supplementing with fish oil is still a good idea.

Fish Oil – What type and how much?

There are actually three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: (1) alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – which is found in flaxseed, walnuts, some vegetable oils, and some green vegetables; (2) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and (3) docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – both of which are found in fatty fish. The health benefits of omega-3s are derived principally from EPA and DHA, so only these should be taken into account when selecting a supplement. (The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but it is not an efficient conversion.) The two lessons to take away from this are: (1) Flaxseed oil is NOT a good substitute for fish oil, and (2) when selecting a fish oil, look closely at the EPA/DHA content.

If you aren’t eating fish and grass-fed beef on a regular basis, you will want to supplement with 2-3 grams of EPA/DHA a day.  There are two primary ways to take fish oil: liquid or pills.

  • Pills: The main advantage of pills is their mobility and ease of ingestion.  Some people have a hard time with the thought of taking liquid fish oil, and pills provide a simple (and tasteless) remedy. The main disadvantage is you’ll need to take several pills to get your desired daily intake. It is important to read labels carefully! Many bottles of fish oil will advertise “1000mg per serving,” but upon closer read, only 300mg is EPA/DHA. To get your daily dose of 2-3 grams of EPA/DHA, you would need 7-10 pills!!  (Note: at home we take Kirkland enteric coated fish oil pills; each pill has almost 700mg EPA/DHA, and we don’t get fishy burps with them!)
  • Liquid: The main advantage of taking your fish oil in liquid form is you can get a concentrated dose and be done for the day in one shot. You can get some decent tasting fish oils – for instance Carlson makes a lemony one. The disadvantages of liquid form are you can’t travel with it, and many people are turned off by the idea of drinking fish oil.

Worth a try?

Only you can decide whether it’s worth your time, energy, and money to add a fish oil supplement to your daily routine. On a personal note, we have been taking it for several years, and we are strong believers in its health benefits. However, we are NOT registered dieticians or physicians, just CrossFit athletes sharing our knowledge of what has worked for us. If you have any concerns, you should always consult your doctor!

For other who/what/when/why articles, check out the following links:

3 thoughts on “The Who/What/When/Why of Fish Oil

  1. Kehl

    Thanks for taking the time to pull out the important stuff on this topic!

  2. Ben

    I’ve been taking fish oil for the past 3 years, but two months ago I backed away from fish oil based on the research of Chris Masterjohn, the Weston Price Foundation, and others like Robb Wolf and Chris Kesser. It seems that not all fish oils are created equal; It’s essential to do your homework. Many fish oils are oxidized or made with poor quality ingredients, and may actually cause health problems instead of solving them.

    Those named individual generally recommend the same nutrition guidelines as your article, but also recommend supplementing with old school cod liver oil instead of fish oil. Chris Kesser writes that it’s important to take CLO with both vitamin D and vitamin K2 (MK-4 form), the latter of which can be sourced through a supplement, high vitamin butter oil, cheese from grass fed cows, and/or lots of eggs.

    I’m not saying fish oil is bad or worse than CLO, like everything else you need to get smart and make informed decisions. Here’s Chris’ fish oil buying guide to help make that informed decision.

    Thanks for shining a light on this important topic.


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