For years we’ve been told that consuming fats will make you fat and increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The general message has been fats are bad for you. Consuming too many of the less desirable fats can most definitely be detrimental to your health. Saturated fats for instance should be consumed in modest amounts. In particular animal saturates should be limited whereas plant saturates like coconut oil have proven health benefits. As bad a rap as saturates get, we should always remember that we all need some saturates in our diet to stay healthy. If there’s one fat that has no redeeming qualities it would have to be trans fat. Trans fats are bar none the most detrimental to your health and should be avoided altogether.
These “bad” fats aside, many other fats have numerous health benefits and should be a regular part of your daily diet. One such fat with an ever-increasing body of evidence supporting its health benefits is fish oil. Fish oils are rich in the essential fatty acid (EFA) alpha linolenic acid (omega-3). EFAs are fats that we can’t manufacture in our body and must therefore be consumed in our diet. There are two EFAs: omega-3s and omega-6s. Of these two omega-6 is being over-consumed and omega-3 under-consumed.
Studies suggest that we’re getting a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 when a ratio between 1:1 and 4:1 is optimal. Although omega-6 fats are essential, excess consumption of them has been associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, inflammation, diabetes, depression, and auto-immune diseases. Omega-3 fats are very much the polar opposite in terms of their impact on our health. They reduce the risk of all the previously mentioned conditions and recent evidence suggests they may increase life expectancy. Fish oils may even offer athletes numerous benefits from protecting muscle fibres from stress associated with intense exercise, reducing inflammation, and protecting athletes’ brains from concussive damage.
There are two other forms of omega-3 fats that have both a different structure and function than alpha linolenic acid. They are EPA and DHA. Omega-3 fats are converted in the liver and enterocytes into EPA and DHA. This conversion however has been shown to be very poor. Omega-3 conversion into EPA is between 5-10% and 0-5% for DHA. Studies have shown that stress, pregnancy, diets high in omega-6 fats, saturates, and trans fats reduce this conversion efficiency and may lead to deficiencies in EPA and DHA. Omega-3s from plant sources (flax, hemp, chia, walnuts, etc.) can’t provide us with EPA and DHA but fish and fish oils provide all three. Many experts have shown that consuming omega-3 fats from plant sources alone isn’t enough and one should include both EPA and DHA from fish oil.
We’ve established both the need for omega-3 fats, EPA, DHA and their health benefits, so what should one look for in a quality fish oil? For starters we need to appreciate that some fish harbour unwanted contaminants like mercury, PCBs and dioxins, to name a few. To reduce the likelihood of contaminants choose smaller species of fish like sardines, anchovies, and mackerel. Through a process known as bioamplification, larger fish accumulate more of these unwanted compounds than smaller ones. Our oceans are so polluted that this alone may not be adequate, so look for fish oils that have been filtered using a process known as molecular distillation. For added security ensure your oil has been tested by a recognized and independent third party lab. IFOS is a renowned lab that sets some of the highest industry standards for fish oils. They measure potency, purity, and rancidity, and if all three pass with flying colours they’re awarded an IFOS 5 Star rating, the highest possible. They go as far as to list fish oil companies test reports on their website at www.ifosprogram.com/IFOS/ConsumerReport.aspx
Fish oils are very sensitive to oxidation. When oils oxidize they can easily become rancid. A rancid fat not only loses its benefits but it becomes a toxic fat. Studies have shown that some fish oils on the market have gone rancid before their expiration dates. To prevent rancidity the oil should be stabilized with antioxidants like vitamin E, green tea extract, and grape seed oil. Ideally the bottles holding these oils should be nitrogen flushed. In this process nitrogen gas is pumped into the bottle, displacing the air and in turn reducing the likelihood of oxidation. A quality fish oil should provide a healthy dose of both EPA and DHA and a balanced ratio of the two. Much debate exists as to the ideal ratio of these two fatty acids. Unfortunately no perfect ratio has been established but that said, it has become generally recognized by experts in the field that during pregnancy and early childhood development more DHA than EPA is warranted and as adults the opposite is true. Armed with the right knowledge you can now separate the fat facts from fiction.