Can’t we just eat more fish to source our omega-3? Ideally we should be able to meet our requirements through eating fish, and it would be fantastic if we could achieve all our nutritional needs directly from our diets. With modern day living practices, however, we have made this increasingly difficult. Contributing factors include a combination of mass farming techniques, lower calorie consumption, nutrient-depleted foods and increased demand for nutritional needs due to stress and pollution; the list goes on. Here we discuss the best sources of omega-3.
Eat more oily fish for general wellbeing
The key active anti-inflammatory ingredient found in fish, omega-3 EPA, is required in our bodies to regulate many processes such as immune health and brain function, and requirements are high. To achieve a suitable dose, we need to know the content found in fish, as they do not all provide the same amount of omega-3.
The flesh of oily fish such as sardines, salmon, pilchards and mackerel, is rich in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and eating two portions of these fish per week can provide a daily amount of around 500 mg omega-3. Eating cod, haddock or plaice (known as ‘white’ fish) won’t have the same benefits because these fish store their omega-3 fatty acids in their livers – not their flesh – and the liver is removed during the gutting process.
Whilst tinned tuna is often a popular choice for fish eaters, the majority of the oil is removed during the canning process and offers little benefit for long-chain fatty acid status, but it retains levels of undesirable pollutants. This seems to be a fact not well-known by the general public. Whilst we may consider that we eat fish reasonably regularly, the UK population as a majority, however, does not consume enough oily fish to ensure that dietary levels are met.
To make sure you are getting a rich supply of omega-3 when eating fish you really need to be eating wild oily fish such as mackerel, herring and salmon. Whilst two portions weekly provides a suitable daily dosage for maintaining general health, this level of consumption is not adequate for clinical therapeutic purposes.
Concerns over contaminants and heavy metals limit our intake to twice weekly
Whilst increasing fish consumption can offer health benefits, there are concerns associated with fish and shellfish consumption due to contaminants such as methyl mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) – all pollutants from industrial processes. Those fish that sit higher in the food chain are likely to contain higher levels of contaminants and some larger fish such as marlin, swordfish and tuna are becoming increasingly unsafe to eat. High toxin levels in larger, longer living fish therefore means that we are restricted as to how much we can eat and how often.
Fish also contains vitamin A, which is a fat-soluble vitamin and is stored in the body. High levels of vitamin A are toxic and have been associated with liver damage. In purified oils, vitamin A is removed, enabling high quantities of omega-3 to be consumed without risking vitamin A toxicity. This is particularly important for pregnant women, as excess intake of vitamin A during pregnancy can cause birth defects.
When considering a fish oil supplement, it is important to note that some contain higher levels of contaminants than others. Only truly pure oils will be contamination-free. Oils sourced from larger longer living fish such as salmon will generally contain the highest level of contaminants. Oils should ideally be sourced from fish lowest in the food chain such as anchovies. Small, short-lived fish also tend to be more sustainable.
Purified omega-3 supplements enable us to take higher doses, safely
A supplement is something that should be considered in addition to a healthy diet, so when taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement, this ideally should be on top of consuming small, short-lived oily fish once or twice a week. For some individuals, two portions of oily fish a week may give them all they need to maintain good health, but for others with specific conditions, demands may be somewhat higher, and therefore supplementing may further support health.
Supplementing with a fish oil supplement may be beneficial for those who cannot or choose not to eat oily fish 1-2 times a week, and also for anyone experiencing increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation may be apparent in conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease or eczema. Many other symptoms such as depression, difficulty sleeping and anxiety can all be a sign of low levels of omega-3, and EPA in particular. Processed foods and farmed meats and fish also contain fatty acids that can unbalance our delicate omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, therefore someone consuming such foods will have an increased need for omega-3 from fish to balance inflammation in the body.