On occasion I will have a friend or family member ask me about taking fish oil. Now this is a good supplement to add to your diet in certain situations. However, there are big differences in quality and effectiveness of the fish oil depending on what kind you buy, how it was manufactured, and how you store it. My goal here is to just put together a simple primer on why you might want to take fish oil and what to look for in a good fish oil (hint you pay for quality here like other areas of life).
In the human body and your diet there is a class of fats known as poly unsaturated fatty acids. These fats have multiple double bonds (hence “Poly”) which causes them to bend in certain ways. This bending influences how they are going to function in the body. If you count the carbons (that is what a fatty acid chain is, just carbon linked together) starting from the end that doesn’t have oxygen on it (omega) the first double bound you come to is what type of fatty acid it is. If your first double bond comes up just after the third carbon you have an omega three fatty acid, if your first double bond comes up just after the sixth carbon you have an omega six fatty acid. This goes on and on accordingly. Now aside from where the first double bond shows up you have differences in the length of these fatty acids, some might be chains of 20 carbons in a row others might be only 16 in a row (and many more variations from here).
The ratio of our omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acid intake in the body is important for inflammation and overall health (science). The problem here is that most processed foods and grain fed meats are higher in the omega 6 fatty acids (also your vegetable oils). So we want to balance this out by either eating foods that have a higher amount of omega 3 (like wild salmon) or if obviously those higher tier food choices are prohibitively expensive we supplement.
Buying your fish oil
There are a lot of options in the store that you can get. The key is don’t just buy the first fish oil supplement you see or the one on sale. The goal here is to first look at how many omega 3s are in each serving. This is where “double strength” capsules can be useful. Some supplements are less than 10% omega three fatty acids (the rest of the fat is different monos, omega 6s, and even potentially saturated). So look at how many grams or milligrams are in each serving of the supplement you are looking at. Your goal will be to take in at least a gram of omega three fatty acids each day and that amount increases with your size and caloric intake (tend to take in more omega 6s with more calories in the diet).
There isn’t a large difference between buying the liquid or the capsules. Essentially the two will be flavored differently in the liquid form which can make it more palatable for some folks. Emulsified fish oils tend to taste even better but won’t make a big difference on the yield of the fatty acids. Also, higher quality fish oils will pull out the mercury and other “toxins”. Aim to pick fish lower on the food chain when given an option. Finally if the fish oil says that it is processed in nitrogen or an oxygen free environment that is a good thing, since those conditions don’t allow for the fish oil to become rancid when it is being processed.
The next part on the label you will notice is the EPA and DHA servings. These are two very important omega 3 fatty acids that have slightly different effects in the body. Though EPA can convert in to DHA. Look at the total dosages of each of the omega three fatty acids to see which it happens to have more of. Here is a quick breakdown of what the differences are between EPA and DHA:
Eicosapentaenoic acid is the omega three that is important in inflammation signaling, neurological function, and even endothelial function. It seems to help with avoiding the development of plaques in your arteries along with helping for normal cognitive development.
Docosahexaenoic acid is the omega three that is important in the nervous system, specifically being a big part of what makes myelin (the insulation to make your nerves fire faster). By getting in adequate amounts of this you can help your nervous system and there seems to be some evidence that supplementing with it can decrease the risk of concussion and speed the recovery from one.
Another fatty acid that I haven’t brought up yet is ALA (alpha linolenic acid). ALA is the basic omega three fatty acid that your body then converts in to EPA. This is the form you find in plant based omega three fatty acid supplements or foods. This isn’t a bad thing, but doesn’t have the same positive effects and the conversion of ALA in to EPA is not that efficient (also depends on your genetics to a certain extent).
Basics of fish oil supplements
When you buy a fish oil supplement after reading the label you want check a few things. First make sure that the supplement isn’t cloudy. If the fish oil is cloudy that can often mean that it is starting to go rancid (these fats breakdown relatively easily), which in turn causes the supplement to not have the positive effect that it is hoped to have had. You can buy the oil or capsules, but there is really no big differences between the two choices as long as you are buying quality. Finally, if the fish oil smells off it has definitely started to go rancid and you need to throw it out (you can crack a fish oil capsule smell that too to check).
Once you buy fish oil supplements due yourself a favor and store them in the fridge. This tends to keep down the “fish burps” and helps the supplement stay good for longer. You can try to mix this in with shakes and such, but don’t use it for cooking since the heat can cause it to break down and change.
There are a few components to keep in mind when looking at fish oil supplementation. If you are already eating a diet that is high in quality meat sources that have adequate amounts of omega threes don’t worry about supplementation. But if you are on a budget, investing in a decent fish oil can be worth your money especially if you happen to participate in a number of sports and activities that cause inflammation, have a risk for concussion, or just want to have better health in general. This is a supplement that I suggest nearly everyone takes.