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Fish Oil – The Fishy Story of EPA and DHA

Fish Oil, is there something fishy going on?

Fish Oil was the bomb back in the day! The be all end all if you will… In fact, if you weren’t taking Fish Oil you were a mug and frankly, not going to live very long, ok, maybe not that drastic… but it has often been delivered as the crux and pinnacle of good health among many, but does it live up to the hype?

The Evolution of Fish Oils

Once the only oil everyone needed, we now know there is more to it than just needing one type of fat for optimum health. Fish Oils are made up of essentially EPA and DHA, which are some of the Omega 3 fatty acids the body needs and there is no doubt that they are beneficial for some aspects of health. After all, they do reduce inflammation [1] and are required for membrane structure [2], however; they are not the only oil we need… not even by a long shot! Let us look at what is essential in terms of fat for the body.

The Essential Fatty Acids

Only two fatty acids are known to be essential for humans: Alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and Linoleic Acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). Did you notice EPA and DHA aren’t mentioned in this sentence? There is a very good reason for this. They are simply not essential fatty acids. In other words, the body doesn’t need them because the body can make them from the omega 3 essential fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid). Thus, the body has the ability to make EPA and DHA given that the body is supplied with alpha-linolenic acid from the diet. Along with supplying this omega 3 fat, the body needs to have adequate nutrient levels to ensure the conversion takes place. You also make all sorts of another cool omega 3 fats also.

Is Fish Oil Sustainable?

In a word, no. Farming fish or worse, harvesting them from the ocean (wild-caught) is not ideal. The number of resources to feed farmed fish, so as the fish can grow enough to give up significant amounts of oil, requires huge amounts of resources. Of course, wild-caught fish is an even worse idea because of the huge requirements for fish oils worldwide.

A study conducted by the University of Melbourne found that intensively-farmed salmon, forced to grow at unnatural rates with supplemented sources of food in the interests of economic yield and efficiency, frequently suffer inner-ear deformities and deafness. The condition affects over 95 per cent of fully-grown factory-farmed fish globally. Understandably, these results raise serious questions about the welfare of farmed fish and if this alternative to ocean sourced is really that much better? [3] In 2018 it was estimated that we pulled 179 million tonnes from fisheries and wild sources for human consumption. [4]

A Better Option…

Considering the need to look after our environment as well as our bodies, we now know there are better options to supplement our essential fatty acid requirements. For example, hemp seed oil contains essential fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid, and linoleic acid. This means that given the right nutrition, people can make their own EPA and DHA (‘fish’ oils) and make all the other cool/beneficial fats that essential fatty acids can be converted into. There are also the omega 5, 7, 9 and 11s to consider in this equation, don’t forget about these!

The Take-home Message

In some circumstances, EPA/DHA Fish Oil may be beneficial, however; recently, science has realized we need more than two types of fat. We need a broad spectrum of essential fatty acids from sustainable, plant-based oils. EPA and DHA are only one kind of fat (the omega 3s). The body is smarter than this and can make these ‘fish oils’ as required and in a regulated way through food, plants infact. In other words, eat well and supplement with the essential fatty acid spectrum and not just one type of oil.

References:

  1. Calder PC. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: from molecules to man. Biochem Soc Trans. 2017 Oct 15;45(5):1105-1115. doi: 10.1042/BST20160474. Epub 2017 Sep 12. PMID: 28900017.
  2. Surette M. E. (2008). The science behind dietary omega-3 fatty acids. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne178(2), 177–180. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.071356
  3. https://about.unimelb.edu.au/newsroom/news/2016/april/hear-no-evil-farmed-fish-found-to-be-hard-of-hearing
  4. https://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture
  5. Farinon, B., Molinari, R., Costantini, L., & Merendino, N. (2020). The seed of industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.): Nutritional Quality and Potential Functionality for Human Health and Nutrition. Nutrients12(7), 1935. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071935