We all know about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, since health authorities can’t seem to stop talking about it, but are we doing our best to take as much of it as our body really needs in order to function properly?
The recommended daily intake of omega-3 is 3 grams, and its benefits range from lowering triglycerides and blood pressure, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and reducing chronic inflammation to maintaining the brain’s health and improving cognitive functioning.
There are many types of omega-3 fatty acids and they’re all essential to our health, but the body can’t make them from scratch and must get them from food. Because of that, many people wonder which food offers the complete package of omega-3 fatty acids and there is still a loud debate in the health community about which source of omega-3 is superior, especially in terms of comparing the benefits of fatty fish and flax seeds, both of which offer the best quality and quantity of different kinds of these precious fatty acids.
Fish omega-3s vs. flaxseed omega-3s
It’s important to know that the omega-3 found in fish differs from the one found in flaxseed. Fish oil contains EPA fats (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA fats (docosahexaenoic acid). The body uses EPA to create many hormone-like substances that reduce inflammation and raised blood pressure. On the other hand, flax oil contains ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is one of two fatty acids that the every cell in the body needs but the body cannot make for itself, also found in hemp seed and walnuts. EPA and DHA, the most important of the three, cannot be provided directly by flaxseed, but the body can make them by converting ALA fats to EPA and EHA fats. So theoretically, if you get enough ALA, you don’t need to consume other types of omega-3 fatty acids. Many studies have shown that the body is able to efficiently convert ALA into the long chain omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA.
Pro’s and con’s of fish and fish oil
A diet rich with the fatty acids found in fish and fish oil will protect the body against various chronic health issues such as diabetes, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular diseases. And since omega-3 is an essential element in the brain development of babies, women of childbearing age are supposed to eat more fish or consume fish oil to support their babies’ proper neural development. Also, fish oil provides a direct supply of the fatty acids EPA and DHA, while it’s conversion from ALA can sometimes have a poor rate of efficiency, and it’s a great source of protein.
However, there have been several important concerns about the toxicity in fish, coming from the toxic contaminants in our rivers, lakes seas and oceans. During the past several decades, the amount of toxic contaminants in fish has raised significantly and experts say we need to be extra careful about how much fish we eat and where it comes from. The FDA’s official advice is to eat fish twice a week, but not more often.
In addition, certain authorities claim that the process many manufacturers use to remove contaminants from fish oils is destructive to the quality of the oil and oils that have undergone this refining process contain up to 1% damaged and hihgly toxic molecules. To avoid this kind of chemically processed products, opt for cold-pressed or unrefined fish oils.
Pro’s and con’s of flaxseed and flaxseed oil
As mentioned before, flaxseed and flaxseed oil is an especially abundant source of ALA fats that can later be converted into other fats by the body.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that vegetarians, vegans and those who cannot find fish need to take enough of the seeds to supply their bodies with the amount of ALA fats needed to create EPA and DHA, or increase their consumption of hemp seeds and walnuts, which are also good sources of ALA fats. An adult would have to eat 5 grams of flaxseed oil or 8 grams of milled flaxseed daily to to meet the recommended daily requirements for omega-3. But one of the facts that makes flaxseed superior to fish is that the body also needs ALA in order to produce omega-6 fatty acids.
Also, being a plant food, flaxseed is not linked to the same concerns regarding limited global availability, high cost, allergenicity and sustainability that seafood products are. In addition, flaxseed is a rich source of fiber and lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that is associated with reduced risk of cancer.
So who wins?
The truth is that both flaxseed/flaxseed oil and fish/fish oil have their specific benefits and roles in the delivery of omega-3 fatty acids to our body and none of them can be considered a winner in this debate.
Vegetarians and vegans can obtain the recommended daily intake of omega-3 through an adequate consumption of flaxseed, while meat eaters can achieve the same goal by feasting on fatty fish twice a week. Naturally, consuming them both means an optimal intake of the full range of all omega-3s and leads to optimal health benefits, because fish provides better quality EPA and DHA, while flaxseed supplies the body with ALA which contributes to the production of plenty other omega-3 fatty acids, including omega-6.