Before we go any further, I should probably clarify my little “Thinning the skin” joke. Unfortunately, fish oil does not thin our skin (although the omega-3 fatty acids present in fish may help to thin our blood by reducing platelet aggregation). Rather, this was a claim made years ago (and probably still today in some communities), that eating fish will help to thin-out the skin of a bodybuilder (i.e. cause them to get leaner) as they approach their competition.
What we later found out (or finally put common sense to), was that eating fish (such as tilapia), which is very low in fat, helped bodybuilders lean-out, not because it was fish per se, but rather that switching to fish from something like ground beef (where most varieties contain significantly more fat), resulted in further fat-loss, mainly because the bodybuilder was now consuming less fat, and therefore less total calories.
(Sorry to spoil the fun, we can still have #tilapiatuesday)
Now with that out of the way, let’s dive into today’s article.
The Benefits of “Fish-oil”
To clarify, the reason fish oil is so highly recommended (for the various things we are about to mention), is not because it is “magical” oil from a fish (although it is pretty awesome), but primarily because fish oil is a good source of 2 very beneficial, health-enhancing fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Some of the major benefits to consuming fish oil (more specifically EPA and DHA) are:
- Can help reduce triglyceride levels (1)
- May help to reduce systemic inflammation (at higher doses) (2)
- Increases blood-flow and oxygenation to the brain (in people with previously low dietary fish intake) (3)
- May help to prevent cognitive decline (elderly; higher doses) (4) and potential improves memory and cognitive test performance (in people with previously low dietary fish intake) (3)
- Improved response to stress (via decreasing noradrenaline) (5)
The list of claims and potential benefits to supplementing with fish oil (EPA/DHA) goes on and on. Many of these potential benefits still need to be looked at further before a definitive answer can be made, however, even with that said EPA and DHA possess many health-enhancing abilities.
What Makes “Fish Oil” So Good?
Again, it all comes down to EPA and DHA. Both are classified as omega-3 fatty acids. For the purposes of our discussion, we don’t need to dive too far down this rabbit hole, however a brief conversation on this point is important (plus interesting).
Simply put, the fat we eat affects the fat content in our blood, and the fat present in our cell membranes. When we experience stress, our body releases stored fat from cell membranes to produce various signaling molecules. The type of fat released effects the signaling molecules that are produced.
As we mentioned, EPA/DHA are omega-3 fatty acids, and will produce different signaling molecules than other fatty acids (for example: arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid).
Before we start to label “good” and “bad” guys, let’s make it clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with omega-6 fatty acids (in fact, linoleic acid, one of the required essential fatty acids in our diet, is an omega-6). Rather it’s the amount of them in relation to omega-3’s that has generated controversy.
It’s similar to the “pop-tart” phenomenon that started years ago in the IIFYM community. As I’m sure many of you reading this article are already aware, there is nothing wrong with eating a pop-tart. We can eat a pop-tart, still be healthy, and still get shredded. The problems start to arise, when we begin eating the whole box of pop-tarts…
Same with omega-6’s. As we mentioned, there is nothing inherently wrong with them, it’s just when we begin eating too many of them, in relation to our omega-3 consumption, things can start to become an issue.
If we consume too many omega-6’s and insufficient amounts of omega-3’s, this can result in an unbalanced production of certain signaling molecules compared to others (which may contribute to chronic systemic inflammation).
Fish Oil Supplementation
We could go on for days getting into the tedious details of the above topic, however, that would make this more of a book than an article. Plus, it would leave us with no “real-world” practical applications/recommendations.
So, how should we go about supplementing with fish oil (or other sources of EPA/DHA which we will cover in a minute)?
First, the most important thing to remember, is that just like protein supplementation, whether or not we need to supplement, and to what degree, is dependent upon our diet and our goals. If we already consume plenty of fatty fish rich in omega-3’s, then we may not need to supplement at all (unless there is a specific clinical reason to increase omega-3 consumption even further). However, if we don’t regularly consume fatty fish, supplementation would probably be a good idea.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults to consume a minimum of 8-oz of seafood per week.
(I’m not saying this is what I personally think, or what you should do, it’s just what the guidelines are at the moment)
To serve as a reference, if this 8 oz. (2-4 oz. portions), were to come from a fatty fish (which is what we would want if our goal was to consume more fish oil), such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, then 8 oz. would contain ~2.5 grams of omega-3’s.
Again, how much you would take, will depend on your specific goals and what you want to accomplish through increasing your omega-3 consumption (certain goals require higher amounts).
As a general recommendation though, the American Heart Association recommends 1 gram/day of combined EPA/DHA, however consuming more than this may result in additional benefits.
Type & How to Take
Remember, our goal is to consume EPA/DHA, not just fish oil in general, so make sure to look at the supplement facts label of the product you are considering.
If we choose to obtain our EPA/DHA through fish oil supplementation, triglyceride, re-esterified triglyceride and crustacean sources such as krill oil, seem to be the better forms to go with. The latter two may be more absorbable, however more research is needed to expand upon this claim (6,7).
“Fish Oil Gives Me Fishy Burps..”
If that’s the case, a few things you can do are: 1) Freeze the capsules and 2) Consume them with food.
Another big concern with fish oil supplementation (and fish consumption in general), is the potential contamination with things such as methylmercury, PCB/dioxin and organochlorine. A way to help reduce your risk (the only real way to be certain is with a lab report), is to stick to fish oil supplements which have been sourced from non-predatory, non-bottom feeding fish/crustaceans, such as: sardines, cod, herring, mackerel and krill (8).
Other Supplemental Sources of EPA/DHA & Omega-3’s
What if you’re a vegetarian or vegan? What other options do you have for obtaining these two beneficial fatty acids?
A great option is algae oil. In fact, eating algae is where fish originally get their EPA/DHA from (then we subsequently get it through eating the fish).
Unfortunately, in-terms of plant-based alternatives other than algae oil, the selection is a bit limited. There are other sources such as flaxseed oil, which are high in ALA (another omega-3 fatty acid), however the conversion rate of ALA to EPA/DHA in the body is very limited (between 5-15% on the high end) (9). This makes 1 TBSP of flaxseed oil (which is equal to 14 grams of total fat) equate to ~700 mgs of EPA/DHA, and that’s if no other “competing” fats are around.
So, as you can see, we can still derive some EPA/DHA from plant-based sources. You can either purchase algae oil and get it directly or you can take ALA, but, it requires a LOT more total calories to get to similar levels of EPA/DHA compared to consuming it directly (via fish, algae, or some other wild-terrestrial animal meats). Therefore, consuming plant-based sources high in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) serve better as an adjunct to fish or algae oil, rather than as the primary provider.
Although fish oil might not “thin-out the skin” like we once thought, it still produces many beneficial outcomes. Whether some of the popular claims made about fish oil are true (e.g. reduces muscle-soreness; still needs more research), the benefits to consuming EPA/DHA are well worth the money (and who knows, maybe some of these claims will turn out to be quite promising). Regardless of your goal, using the above as a general guideline can only help.
Before increasing your omega-3 intake, talk to your doctor if you have any condition (e.g. taking medications such as blood-thinners) which could result in adverse reactions/interactions.
I hope you benefited, and enjoyed reading this article. If there is anything you’d like me to write about in the future, feel free to reach out to me at: stevetaylorRD@gmail.com. You can also find me on:
Mailing List: http://eepurl.com/cgrTfv
- Eslick GD, et al Benefits of fish oil supplementation in hyperlipidemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cardiol. (2009)
- Ferrucci L, et al Relationship of plasma polyunsaturated fatty acids to circulating inflammatory markers . J Clin Endocrinol Metab. (2006)
- Jackson PA, et al DHA-rich oil modulates the cerebral hemodynamic response to cognitive tasks in healthy young adults: a near IR spectroscopy piolet study. Br J Nutr. (2012)
- Kalmijn S, et al Dietary intake of fatty acids and fish in relation to cognitive performance at middle age . Neurology. (2004)
- Hamazaki T, et al Anti-stress effects of DHA . Biofactors. (2000)
- Dyerberg J, et al Bioavailability of marine n-3 fatty acid formulations . Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. (2010)
- Neubronner J, et al Enhanced increase of omega-3 index in response to long-term n-3 fatty acid supplementation from triacylglycerides versus ethyl esters . Eur J Clin Nutr. (2011)
- Mahaffey KR Methylmercury: a new look at the risks . Public Health Rep. (1999)
- Gerster H Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) . Int J Vitam Nutr Res. (1998)