If you read any of the prominent natural health sites, watch any shows on TV about natural medicine, or read the NY Times, watch CNN, etc. you will surely be bombarded by one singular message:
Taking fish oil is good for your health. In fact, it is even necessary.
Without fish oil, they claim, you will be lost and lacking a very important essential fatty acid for your heart, for your joints, and even for your brain!
If you stop for a moment, and reflect, you might ask yourself this:
How is it that for thousands of years, human beings survived in locales that did not have close proximity to the ocean? Not everyone had access to fish over eons of time, yet cultures survived and thrived. So, what’s the real story here?
First of all, remember that if a company or product line perceive that they may have a competitive edge of any kind, they will push the boundaries of truth in order to be perceived as the only solution to a particular problem. When you think of calcium, you may reflexively think of milk. When you think of protein, images of meat and dairy products get conjured up. Congratulations to these companies! They have been far beyond successful in this mission to be the solution to our so-called nutritional problems. Companies that represent fish oil are no different. They have cleverly massaged the current body of nutritional information so that when you think of heart or brain health, you see pictures of little golden gelatin pills in your head.
What is the truth about fish oil supplements?
The truth is that human beings do need to consume some essential fatty acids. The ones that most people find they may be deficient in, in terms of their dietary intake, would be the Omega 3’s. Now, the main constituent in Omega 3 is ALA, alpha linoleic acid. So, if you consume a handful of walnuts or some ground flax seeds each day, you will be home free as far as consumption of your ALA’s. That seems easy enough, doesn’t it? OK, so there is a bit more.
The confusion (and crossed eyes) usually sets in because ALA can be converted to two other types of essential fatty acids. These are DHA and EPA. These are fatty acids that also play a role in the body. Some of the controversy has occurred because people who consume fish on a regular basis have more DHA and EPA in their tissues. That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Human beings can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but not as efficiently as fish do. Still, there is no conclusive evidence that human health will suffer without these higher levels of DHA and EPA. Going back to nature and considering indigenous cultures, one can conclude that we need small amounts of these fatty acids and we convert them on sort of an as needed basis.
If you have ever read the book by John Robbins, “Healthy at 100”, there is one truly golden page in the book. It is a reference table. The table shows that the Hunza and the indigenous people of Vilcabamba, Equador both have about 75% of their calories from carbohydrates (like rice, corn and yams) and 1% of their foods from animals, with almost no fish. And these people live into their nineties with very little heart disease or Alzheimer’s. So is a DHA or EPA deficiency really the issue?
Do people who do not consume meat or dairy may not have has as high a need to drive down inflammation with fish oils? No, they likely do not. They also probably do not need to work as hard at preventing heart disease or Alzheimers with those golden gelatin pills. It is very likely that with the right intake of Omega 3’s and the absence of meat or dairy intake, that human beings can thrive very well without fish oils.
I think it is also important to add to this discussion a consideration about the sustainability of 7 billion people attempting to get their fatty acid nutrition satisfied by fish. As the situation stands now, about 70-80% of all the fish have been removed from the oceans for human consumption. That number seems absolutely staggering to me. Does it seem staggering to you?
Another thing to consider is this. What is the quality of fish oil that you will consume? We know that fish are absolutely contaminated with PCB’s from industry and mercury and other heavy metals. Fish sold at Whole Foods or other grocery stores require a warning, yes a warning, about how toxic they are to human health! And finally, what about the oxidation factor? PUFA’s, also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids, are known for their susceptibility to oxidative damage. That means they go bad, or rancid, quickly. Do you know for sure that your fish oil capsules are not doing more harm than they are doing good?
If you are concerned about balancing your essential fatty acids without fish oil, here are a couple of tips to be sure you’ve got it all covered:
- Use less sunflower, safflower and corn oil and more oils that contain ALA, such as walnut and flax. Using these more often will encourage the conversion of ALA to DHA.
- If you are very concerned about DHA, it is possible to supplement an algae source of DHA. After all, the fish don’t produce DHA! They concentrate it from the algae that they consume.
- Consume lambsquarter and purslane. These are wild plants that contain trace amounts of EPA.
- Consume sacha inchi oil, which contains DHA.
And finally, enjoy simplifying your life with fewer supplements and the knowledge that yes, nature supplies what we need from plant-based life. In abundance.