Which is better?
Fish oil is better. Much better.
Flaxseed oil is right for you only if…
- You are a vegetarian
- You are vegan
- You are allergic to fish
Otherwise, there is no health advantage to taking flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed oil is popular because it is cheap, comes from a plant and has a lot of Omega-3. It contains an Omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Many plants and nuts including walnuts and hempseed also contain ALA.
Omega-3 from Flax is not the same as the Omega-3 from fish.
The problem with Flaxseed oil
Yes, there is Omega-3 in Flaxseed oil. But the human body cannot efficiently use the kind of Omega-3 found in Flax (ALA).
EPA and DHA are the Omega-3 found in fish and fish oil supplements. This is what your body really needs. Your body easily uses the Omega-3 from fish oil.
With Flax, your body has to convert ALA to usable EPA before it can be used. But this conversion is difficult, slow, incomplete and complicated.
Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil – the DHA problem
Flaxseed oil cannot be converted to DHA at all. DHA from fish oil is crucial for brain and eye health.
Teenage girls can convert Flax ALA to usable Omega-3 the best. As women get older, their bodies become unable to use flaxseed oil. Boys and men’s bodies simply cannot use Flaxseed oil.
If you are pregnant, your baby NEEDS DHA to develop healthy brain and eyes. Flaxseed oil will not give you enough DHA during pregnancy. Please, please switch to a high-DHA formula!
If you are older than 30, then only about 5 – 10% of the Flaxseed oil is converted to usable Omega-3. Many scientists have independently come to this verdict.
This means you have to take a dozen or more flaxseed oil pills to equal the benefit of one ultra-concentrated fish oil pill.
Flaxseed oil vs Fish Oil
Flaxseed oil is not completely useless. If you take daily handfuls, may be 6 Flax pills in the morning and 6 at night, you will feel the same benefits as one fish oil pill.
Is it worth it? Only if you are a strict vegetarian.
How eating cookies and chips makes flaxseed oil useless
Most people cannot benefit from Flax oil:
- Trans-fats found in chips, cookies, cakes, margarine, and most processed foods will stop your body from converting the ALA in flax to usable EPA.
- Eating too much Omega-6 from corn oil can also put the brakes on this conversion. Most Americans eat about 20 times too much Omega-6.
- Eating sugary candy or drinking alcohol can prevent your body from using flaxseed oil.
- Same thing happens with deficiencies in B-vitamins, magnesium or zinc. 6 out of 10 Americans are deficient magnesium.
- If you are diabetic, have high blood pressure or are overweight, then your body cannot use flaxseed oil.
- If you are male or over the age of 30, then your body cannot use flaxseed oil well.
The list above covers just about all of us.
Why do all these things affect the benefits of flaxseed oil?
Well, because it takes up to 7 complex enzymatic steps to convert ALA into usable EPA and DHA. Why force your body to do all that if fish oil supplements already provide a usable Omega-3?
Unless you are a vegan, there is no reason to take flaxseed oil for Omega-3.
However, we love whole flax seeds. They are super healthy. They taste nutty and are perfect for sprinkling into salads and cereals.
You are much better off taking a ultra-concentrated fish oil supplement.
‘Pharmaceutical grade or ultra-concentrated’ means it is highly purified and has more than 85% usable forms of Omega-3 from fish. This means you feel benefits with fewer pills. Regular store brand fish oils have only about 20 to 30% Omega-3.
What Scientists and Doctors have to say about Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil
What Scientists and Doctors have to say about
|Columbia University Department of Pediatrics: “ALA has no or only weak beneficial effects on diminishing the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
British Journal Atherosclerosis: “Fish oil produced predictable changes in cardiovascular risk, but were not reproduced with ALA from Flaxseed oil.” – Volume 181, Issue 1, July 2005, Pages 115-124
Columbia University Department of Pediatrics: “(ALA), is generally far less effective at inducing biological effects, in part because of its inefficient conversion to EPA and DHA in humans. Thus, maximal effects of Omega-3 depend on the delivery of EPA and DHA rather than of ALA.”
Tufts-New England Medical Center: “Evidence suggests that increased consumption of Omega-3 from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not of alpha-linolenic acid (flax), reduces the rates of all-cause mortality, cardiac and sudden death, and possibly stroke.”
Tufts-New England Medical Center: “Omega-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not -linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease.”
Cornell University: “Studies generally agree that whole body conversion of ALA (Flax) to DHA is below 5% in humans.”- Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2002 Mar; 5(2): 127-32.
Hoffmann-Roche: “Conversion is approximately 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA. With a diet rich in Omega-6, conversion is reduced further by 40 to 50%.” – Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998; 68(3): 159-73.
University of Guelph: “Thirty adults with ADHD were given 12 weeks of supplementation with olive oil, flax oil or fish oil. The data suggest that in order to increase levels of EPA and DHA in adults with ADHD high dose fish oil may be preferable to high dose flax oil.” – Reprod Nutr Dev. 2005 Sep-Oct; 45(5): 549-58.
it seems suspicious that your site is overwhelmingly pro fish oil, which is the product it sells.. Flax oil is actually much safer your body. Humans are not designed to digest animal products. While the omega 3’s in fish may be easier to digest, the flesh of the fish is essentially poisonous to humans..
Hi DR Truth – certainly, the website sells a fish-oil-derived Omega-3 product. But we didn’t become pro fish oil after we entered the fish oil business. We decided to sell fish oil as a result of being ‘overwhelmingly pro fish oil.’ To date, there are over 22,000 published research papers on fish oil and Omega-3. Having spent several years doing research, I have not seen any publication that suggests that flax oil is safer than fish oil or that humans are not designed to digest animal products. If you have PubMed links to support the claims, please share.
– Vin Kutty
Where do fish get their omega 3’s? Oh yeah from plants, from the algae they eat. If the FISH get it from plants, i think I’ll stick to getting mine from plants too by grinding my flax right before consumption. The science is sound that flax and chia are an excellent source of omega 3’s and fiber and protein and vitamins and minerals. Oh and our body does the converting of the omega 3’s to dha and ala.
Hi Monica – fish get their Omegas from algae. And you can too! There are lots of algae-based Omega-3 supplements. Most are poor quality, but algae technology has come a long way and quality is getting better with each passing year.
Flax and chia have lots of nutrients and, yes, ALA Omega-3. ALA is converted to EPA, but not much is converted to DHA. The conversion of ALA to EPA is about 15 to 20% if you’re female and mid single digits percent if you’re male. ALA’s conversion to DHA is low single digits at best. Any number of nutrient deficiencies can further limit this conversion. This just means that you need to eat a lot more plant-based Omegas to meet your total Omega needs.
Fortunately, there is no need to guess if you’re getting enough Omegas. Get an Omega-3 Index test done. It can be done thru the mail and it is not expensive. If you’re at 5% or less, you’ve got an Omega-3 deficiency. Between 5 and 8% is acceptable. Above 8% to 12% or so is good. Unless you’re taking algae-based or vegan Omeag-3 supplements, it’s impossible with flax and chia alone to get your DHA levels that high. We know because we’ve tried.
Take an Omega-3 index test with OmegaQuant now. Share the results with us. Then eat a ton of flax and chia for 2 months. We’ll pay for your second Omega-3 index test. Share results with us. We’ll publish results in a blog. If you can get your Omega-3 index above 8% with nothing but flax and chia. No algae-based or vegan Omega-3 supplements. No fish oil. Honor system! If you can get the number above 8%, I’ll eat my hat. Publicly.
“Humans are not designed to digest animal products.”
Huh? Why exactly do we have canine teeth then?
Agreed. Humans are omnivores and perfectly designed for eating both plant and animal based foods.
– Vin Kutty
Nutrients 2011, 3, 529-554; doi:10.3390/nu3050529
I do not have all the answers. But the ALA from flax oil can be converted to DHA, which contradicts what you say. The conversion occurs in the endothelial cells and the astrocytes surrounding neurons.
See attached article.
The degree of conversion of precursor molecules is a misleading concept. The half-life of DHA in the brain is 2.5 years; only a few tens of milligrams are needed every day, so this could theoretically easily be supplied by the appropriate enzyme systems, which will be upregulated if there is a dearth of product; this is a well-recognized adaptation in any enzyme catalysed metabolic pathway.
It is reasonable to suppose that the over-supply of DHA/EPA from fish oil will have issues arising owing to the tendency of these fats to oxidize; vitamin E will be sacrificed to prevent this from occurring, which could be more profitably utilised elsewhere; it is well established that the eight isomers of E are involved in cancer prevention and immunity pathways.
Ultimately however, an empirical viewpoint is probably the most sensible. Given the over-supply of omega 6 in the average processed diet, and knowing that n-3 and n-6 fatty acids compete for the same desaturase enzymes, n-3 synthesis, invaluable though it is, will tend to be suppressed by such a diet, so incorporating fish oil, and ensuring adequate intakes of antioxidants from fruit and vegetables etc, is probably the most appropriate strategy to preserve and promote one’s neurological health.
Hi Tim – great points! Thank you.
ALA can technically be converted to DHA. Yes. Young women of reproductve age do this somewhat well. Possibly because they’re likely to have a fetus that requires large amounts of DHA for proper development. Older women and especially men are very poor at this conversion. The short chain ALA is converted to EPA with poor efficiency, but most people can manage this conversion at single-digit efficiency. But the elongation from C20 to C22 is very poor…but not nonexistent. The point of this post was to inform people who take Flaxseed oil under the belief that they are getting PLENTY of Omega-3s. They are not getting plenty, just very little. Explaining the degree of precursor conversion or retroconversion is, frankly, beyond the scope of this blog and not what I was trying to address…although it would be fun to read all the research and distill it for our readers.
You are right about the half-life of DHA and the mere few mg of DHA needed for the brain. Very few people know this. It’s the reason why our OmegaVia formula has much more EPA than DHA. Still, the brain is not the only place in the body that houses and needs DHA. Eyes, heart, sperm all need DHA to function properly. All together, probably less than 100 mg per day is my guess. And I’m being generous.
An excess of Omega-3 can add an oxidative burden. But the best brains in academia have yet to agree on how much is too much. At least as of the 2012 GOED meeting that I attended. And certainly, no one has been able to clearly quantify the resulting increase in antioxidant need. I’m not sure I agree that Vit E (exclusively) will be sacrificed to prevent oxidative damage. There is a lot we don’t know.
I like your approach on preserving neurological health. Thanks for the great comment.
– Vin Kutty
My understanding is DHA is converted to EPA in the body when your body lacks EPA… DHA has fewer carbon molecules than EPA so it would be much easier to drop these molecules & convert what your body needs into EPA. I have much considered converting over to using flax because of the simple reason that fish burps & not digesting the fish oil is a problem for me. I have also went back & forth on either a high EPA Or a high DHA (since it converts to EPA) fish oil. Maybe you can shed some light on this. Dr. Oz swears that women need more DHA in all phases of life.
Hi Gingergirl – yes, DHA converts to EPA. But only about 10% of DHA converts to EPA. Not all of it. So DHA by itself is not enough.
DHA has 2 more carbons that EPA, for what that’s worth.
High-DHA is perfect if you are pregnant, nursing or recovering from stroke or brain damage. All others need more EPA than DHA.
Dr. Oz means well, but is wrong. When it comes to nutrition advice, he is frequently wrong and clings to decades-old dogma. There is no scientific basis for his DHA-only position. See this: http://www.omegavia.com/dr-oz-omega3-supplements/ and this: http://www.omegavia.com/why-omegavia-is-high-in-epa-omega-3-part-1/
Hope this gives you a different perspective.
– Vin Kutty
Vin please obtain the ” Perfect Health Diet” by Paul and Shou -Ching Jaminet, both Phd’s. I would like your knowledgeable viewpoint of the book. It covers this and other topics from a scientific perspective. They do veer off into ‘lala’ land time-and-again, but I think you will find it interesting to say the least. On a related note: I hope the lime-light on Vitamin D can soon be lifted once and for all. Vitamin D is definitely not the panacea its currently made out to be by the health press. Important yes, but no panacea. Thank you.
Hi Carl – yes, I just finished reading the book. I’d also read their self-published original version a couple of years ago. The new one is one of my favorite health books…and I read a LOT of them. I’ve followed a paleo or primal diet for several years and this book describes the rationale extremely well with plenty of references. I found the anthropology tangents to be very informative, may be that’s what you mean by la-la land.
I’ve struggled to tackle the subject of eicosanoid pathway on this blog, but have attempted to do so in my last couple of blogs. This stuff is complicated. But the Jaminets have done a great job clarifying all this in their Omega-6 chapter.
The authors are bit more focused on infections and pathogens than most, but then again, that was a source of their misery. Not sure this applies to all of us.
Vitamin D needed its day in the sun. It’s not a panacea, but if you’re deficient and then start taking 5000 IU per day, it sure feels like a panacea.
– Vin Kutty
Hi Vin, thanks for your reply. I agree on your view of the Jaminets’ work. The la-la lands they sometimes sail off to are the rash general references they site such as, Vince Gironda advocating 36 eggs per day and Casey Viator consumming two gallons of raw milk and two dozen eggs per day… and so forth. They don’t need this to get the point across. In my opinion, these unnecessary anecdotes are very specious and take away the impact and scientific focus of otherwise great nutritional work.
But I do agree, the biochemical explanations are complicated for most of us to appreciate, I think sometimes its alot easier for people accept things more from the wholistic view. I like the principle of the primal diet, but now try to adjust it to accommodate my spiritual well-being. And personally, I can’t accept that eating a piece of another animal is good wholistic nutrition without striving leaps and bounds to obtain the other missing nutrients to regain a balance lost by my food choices. I don’t accept that part any longer.
Nicely put about Vitamin D, up next is K and its going to be a good one.
Its nice talking with you here, please email if you have time and would like to chat more. I think my next area of nutritional discovery will be probiotics/butyrates. Thanks again.
What is your opinion on Nature’s Bounty Triple Strength One-per-day Fish Oil 1400 mg, 980 mg Omega-3? Thanks.
Regarding the “DR truth” argument:
Hydrochloric acid is something not found in herbivores. This alone should be enough to counter any arguments that we shouldn’t eat meats. I feel guilty about eating meats, myself, but our bodies are dependent on meats to some degree and I feel sick if I go too long without consuming meat. I mainly stick to fish and eggs and sometimes beef. There are other things that also strongly indicate humans are omnivores.
Thank you, Dave, for the links.
Nature’s Bounty Triple Strength products are OK. I am not a fan of that brand because they value cost above all else. There is also very little disclosure about raw material sources or third-party testing. Having said that, I am familiar with the inside workings of that company. Their manufacturing and production operations are well run. I also know that if they can find cheaper oil from China, they will (and have) use it, as long as it meets specifications.
From a value perspective, you get a lot for your money if you buy this product at Costco or SAM’s Club. It’s not what I call ultra-concentrated but it’s still fairly concentrated at 70% Omega-3. That’s the level at which 3000 mg Omega-3s combined with a healthy diet and exercise plan can help maintain healthy triglycerides. It’ll work better at 85% or higher Omega-3.
I was looking at your brand first but was trying to not spend a lot last week, so I bought theirs. Ultimately, Omegavia is cheaper as you get more than qaudrupel the number of pill at a higher dosage of omega-3 per pill for just over triple the price. Omegavia is definitely the cheaper and better buy.
“If you are diabetic, have high blood pressure or are overweight, then your body cannot use flaxseed oil.”
That’s a very bold statement. Do you have some scientific evidence (pubmed articles etc) to support your claim? I would be very interested in reading them. How can u make such a definitive statement? I doubt any scientist would.
For the record am neither for/against fish oil or flaxseed oil (I eat alot of good rich in omega 3 – oily fish high in EPA/DHA & foods like walnuts, soy etc high in ALA).
But after reading some of the things you state as absoloute fact in your article I became highly skeptical of everything else you wrote. That along with this being a site selling fish oil, really takes away the credibility of your article.
Unfortunately it really makes me question the validity of your other statements if you will state that being overweight automatically means your body cannot use flaxseed. Bit outlandish to say the least.
Personally I think we should be careful about stating personal opinion (well researched as they may be) as facts. But I will remain open minded to your claims, but would like to see some research on this.
Hi Sasha – I’ll grant you that the sentence is very strongly stated. In retrospect and since you brought it up, we are going to tone it down a bit, without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Perhaps it should read “If you are diabetic, have high blood pressure or are overweight, then your body cannot use flaxseed oil efficiently.” The key word is efficiently. That’s not just my opinion. The poor conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA has to do with compromised delta-5/6-desaturase activity. It’s discussed in these papers:
This is a technical discussion forum of a company that sells fish oil. Most of the time we praise fish oil. Sometimes we bash it. We regularly recommend other brands of fish oil. We try to be fair.
Credible or not, you decide.
– Vin Kutty
I’m looking into FlaxSeed Oil instead of fish oil because the consumption of all fish except tuna drives me into anaphylactic shock. Even at the smell of cooking fish my throat starts to close. I’m looking for omega-3’s in junction with other vitamins and minerals to help support hair and nail growth. Yes I am a female far from 30, but I fall into the category of overweight, cookie lover, lean cuisine eating, with a history in the family of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. From your article, it seems as if purchase and intake of flaxseed oil vitamins will wind up literally in the drain. Will taking the vitamins help towards my purpose or will my body completely lack the ability to convert the omega-3’s to usable form?
Thank you for your time & answer,
Hi Z – I have a option that you may not have considered. Do a google search for algae DHA supplements and you will find a lot of products made from algae – you should not be allergic to it since it is made from plants.
– Vin Kutty
PS: the Lean Cuisine is as much to blame as the cookies for weight gain. Avoiding fat is a bad, bad idea for so many reasons. Next time, pour a couple of tablespoons of healthy olive oil over your lean cuisine. Look into a whole foods or paleo type diet.
Im wandering if you can help me – i have recently been taking flaxseed oil regurly at night 2 capules per day – i suffer with bad pms and also very bad ibs – i innitialy started taking this for dry eyes – however i started to get bad acne on my jaw line and so decided this was due to the fax as it only started then – however the fax was amazing for my hair and all my ibs issues dissapeared completely – however since stooping this (only 4 days) my ibs is back in a very bad way – do you think fish oil would also help my ibs? and would it clear my acne or also make this worse?
thankyou for your help natasha xxx
Hi Natasha – I strongly feel like there are other dietary factors at play here, even though combining Omega-3 and Evening Primrose oil has shown to help PMS. Omega-3 can help a tiny bit with IBS, but not make it completely disappear. I have a hard time believing that Flax or Fish Omega-3 can cure IBS. IBS requires you to heal your gut – follow a Paleo type diet and take probiotics. Omega-3 does not hurt, but you’ve got some classic signs of eating a standard american diet – acne and IBS. Fish oil won’t hurt, but I dont want to give you false hope by saying it will change anything. In you case, a strict whole foods diet like paleo will do wonders.
I am a very healthy 57 year old female. My only health issue is exceptionally high cholesterol thanks to a strong family history. Although I have always maintained a very healthy diet, the only thing that had ever reduced my cholesterol to the partial satisfaction of my doctors, was Lipitor, but I am very uncomfortable with the use of that or any drug, and early this year, after my previous doctor was pushing me to double the Lipitor dose, I decided to try the vegan approach. Within four months of this diet, plus some natural supplements which had previously failed to reduce it much, my cholesterol dropped from 369 to 240. The only animal product I use is fish oil, which my new alternative physician, who is neither promoting nor opposing a vegan diet, says I need. I have been greatly influenced by the approach of the “Forks over Knives” materials, and they insist that with a balanced vegan diet no Omega supplements are necessary. Given the success of my vegan venture, I would like to switch to a vegan omega supplement, or not take any oil supplement at all. What would your input be? Thanks.
Hi Margot – remember…you asked! So I’ll take the liberty of being blunt. If high cholesterol is a family/genetics thing, then I’m afraid you may have to stay on statin drugs like Lipitor. A very small percent of the population who have Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH) do seem to benefit from being on the drug. That’s not to say that the side effects are significant – I am (shockingly) with your doctor on this one. I suggest offsetting some of the side effects by taking 100-200 mg of COQ10 twice a day.
It is not unusual for people with FH to respond well (initially) to an animal-free diet. You are a ‘responder.’ Most people don’t respond to increases or decreases in cholesterol in their diet – their livers just adjust internal cholesterol production up or down to keep a healthy level. ‘Responders’ are different – I am one of them. If we eat a lot of eggs, steak, butter etc (and I do!) our cholesterol levels go up. If we switch to a vegan diet, our cholesterol numbers drop.
‘Forks over knives’ is based on some very flawed scientific data. I think veganism is emotionally and morally superior, but nutritionally inferior to a whole food omnivorous diet. (Remember, you asked!) You will soon become deficient in several nutrients, starting with Vitamin B12. Most people who switch to vegan diets, increase veggie consumption and drop a lot of crap from their diet like sugar and processed junk, and that could be a big part of your initial improvement in health. I think the Forks over Knives people are wrong about not needing Omega-3 supplements, especially since you don’t eat fish. I suggest you look into Algae DHA supplements – there are tons of them.
More here: http://www.omegavia.com/cholesterol-when-to-panic/ and here: http://www.omegavia.com/omega-3-options-for-vegans/
Great info here Vin! I think Thera Tears includes flax seed oil. Is there some advantage of flax vs fish for dry eye and/or macular degeneration? Or, would you just recommend high DHA//EPA fish oil for such ocular issues? Thanks very much!
Hi Robert – yes, Theratears contains both fish and flaxseed oils. From the research I’ve read, the EPA and DHA from fish oil contribute the most to dry eye relief. There is also some evidence that GLA from Borage helps a little too. But use caution with Borage because GLA works best if you’re on a sugar-free and low-carb diet. Most people don’t fall in that category, so GLA may backfire on you. Flax, well, it doesn’t hurt. But Flax would not be my first choice for dry eye relief, unless I were vegan. And if you WERE vegan, there are lots of algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements on the market, which would be my choice over Flax.
Macular degenration is a different issue – you may have better luck including lutein, zeaxanthin to high potency fish oil. A little liver from grass-fed cattle helps with pre-formed Vitamin A, Zinc and Copper too.
Conversion of ALA is poor but even distilled fish oil has PCB’s. Non distilled also has heavy metals such as mercury which has been show to affect fetal brain development. Algae derived omega 3”s seem to be the safest way to go.
Hi Ed – you’re right, in theory.
If fish oil was the only place you got PCBs from, then you’re better off getting your Omegas from algae. But it is not. When’s the last time you ate vegetables, chicken, meatloaf, pancake, muffins, popcorn, the list goes on…all these foods have many orders of magnitude more PCBs than fish oil.
Fish oil breaks industry specifications if it exceeds about 90 parts per billion. Most distilled fish oils have a tiny fraction of that. A chicken breast has about 2500 parts per billion. Vegetables are worse. Why? Because PCBs are a global problem. Anything grown on this planet is contaminated with PCBs. More here: http://www.omegavia.com/fish-oil-supplements-and-pcbs-should-your-worry-part-2/
BTW, if I told you how much lead was in milk, you’d stop drinking it too. Sorry.
Good info, Vin….I’ve read in other places that as popular as the warm, nutty flavor of flax oil is, it is a very poor substitute for fish-derived omega-3s. But then, the vegan sites say just the opposite, which is a real shame. I would say for true vegans, perhaps they can get their omega-3s from algae. That’s where I get my calcium, magnesium, selenium, etc. from everyday.
For example, I have a bottle of Barlean’s Lignan Flax oil in my fridge. Says on the label that each tablespoon provides a whopping 7230mg of ALA. Sounds pretty impressive. It’s a lot more ALA than in the seeds themselves (yet without the extra lignans and fiber).
But when you multiply it out via the 5% conversion rule, you’re getting about 361mg TOTAL of DHA and EPA, and that’s only IF you have the “perfect storm” of chemical reactions going on in your bod to make it happen at all. My neighbor says she fries her eggs in it…oh, well.
My opthamologist recommended flax oil for dry eyes, and that’s fine, and I love it and use it and the ground seeds almost everyday. But I would never expect it to carry the weight of providing all my omega-3s. We didn’t evolve eating flax, but eating meat and fish. It all makes sense to me.
I have several colleagues who really love to argue this point and they swear I’m wrong and LOVE their flax oil exclusively.
I’ve learned to leave them the flax alone. lol 🙂 It’s a losing argument, so I just eat my salmon salads in front of them and make primal yummy noises. haha
Hi PJ – Flax is nice in its own right. It is tasty as a seed or powder over yogurt, salad or as an oil when used in low/no heat food preparation. But it is a really poor substitute for fish oil. There is a small body of evidence that shows that ALA from plants may have unique benefits other than those provided by EPA or DHA. However, relying on ALA to convert to EPA or DHA is pointless. Teenage girls and women in their 20s are able to convert some ALA to EPA assuming they are in perfect health and not deficient in any nutrient. This demographic probably uses ALA best because they are biologically ready for pregnancy and they need all the Omega-3 they can muster up to grow a fetus. Older women and men might as well give up. There is scant evidence that says vegans convert ALA a little better than omnivores – possibly an attempt by desperate bodies to get Omega-3 any way it can?
By the way, the 5% rule only works with EPA. The elongation process from EPA to DHA is not easy, so hardly any ALA is converted to DHA.
The conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA research is useless. Your body converts ALA depending on it’s needs and it’s a fact. If you take a spoon of flax oil and take a spoon of fish oil, the the body will metabolize the same amount of relevant omega-3s, the rest is thrown away. The same goes with beta carotene vs. retinol from animal liver. Your body will make vitamin A from both, but only the amount it needs. That’s why you’re supposed to eat whole foods, and not supplements, because it’s the synergy that counts. It is also important how you eat flax oil – gulping it down doesn’t help. You need to mix it with salivary lipase for few minutes, and it’s much easier for the body to split up other parts.
Raven – young women of reproductive age convert ALA to longer chain Omegas better than most. But the rest of us don’t. Not just because of age and gender, but because of SEVERAL nutritional and metabolic conditions that virtually all Americans would fall under. I’d rather people eat whole foods, like wild fish, pastured eggs and grass-fed meats along with lots of leafy greens and root vegetables. If a person is vegan, and thinking of getting pregnant, I’d highly, highly recommend getting an algae DHA supplement in addition to ALA sources. ALA has benefits independent from those from EPA, so it’s worth including ALA sources in your diet. Specifically avoiding long chain Omegas in favor of ALA because the body can convert all it needs, is not science. It’s hope.
Okay, but you see, the thing is I’m allergic to legumes. A lot of fish oil supplements, they contain soy. I’d be fine if it was fish oil alone but I have to take flaxseed oil in substitute. I guess from what you’re saying I should thank my lucky stars I’m female even if I am overweight because I’m probably getting a little benefit from it for my high cholesterol.
Hi LHW – you’re right, many fish oil supplements contain Vitamin E (natural preservative) that’s extracted from soy. Most people who are allergic to soy or other legumes are allergic to the PROTEINS in those legumes, not the fats or oils. The Vitamin E used in fish oil supplements do not contain any legume proteins. So you may not be allergic to it after all. OmegaVia is soy-free, but I can’t speak for other products. If you do decide to give it a try, work with a doctor, in case you’re allergic to something else in fish oil supplements besides legume proteins. My suggestion is to get your Omegas from eating fish. Or look for soy-free fish oils. You can certainly take flaxseed oil for some of your EPA needs. Flax will not meet your DHA needs at all. For that you will need seafood or may be Omega-3 eggs. And no, Omega-3 will not reduce your total cholesterol much. It will lower your triglycerides, but not cholesterol.
Dear Vin Kutty,
I am seriously interested in becoming a vegan. However, I want to ensure I remain nutritionally healthy regarding omega oils. I have read that taking hemp oil would be an ideal way of achieving this given that advice on the optimum balance of omega 6 to Omega 3 in the diet suggests that it should be at at ratio of 3:1, which is the ratio found in hemp oil.
Please would you kindly advise me on the above information which I have found. Thanking you in advance for your time and consideration.
Hi Lacey – since you addressed the question directly to me, I will give you my personal opinion: the only reasons why you might want to become a vegan are ethical or religious. The arguments for going vegan are not nutritionally supported, regardless of how passionately some people may argue. However, should you decide to become and stay a vegan, you may want to think about supplementing with algae DHA. DHA is otherwise impossible to find. You will also have trouble finding enough Vit B12 in your diet. In general, you will need to get very good at supplementing your diet. Pass on hemp and chia and all the other seed oils. Go straight for algae based DHA supplements.
Thank you Vin. I have ordered a DHA-EPA Vegan Omega 3 Oil algae based supplement from a company called DEVA. I chose one that did not contain carrageenan as I read online that this is a potentially harmful ingredient. I opted for DEVA Vegan Omega-3 DHA-EPA, Derived from Algae, 90 Vcaps, Delayed Release.
The DHA&EPA provided per capsule is 200mg total.
This is constituted from DHA 120mg-140mg and from EPA 60mg-80mg.
Recommendation is one capsule per day. I would like to ask your advice regarding this dosage; would you advise that I go by the manufacturer’s recommendation and just take one per day or would you advise two per day? Thanks so much. I look forward to your considered reply.
Hi Lacey – oh definitely more than 1 per day! Two to three would put you in the low end of what I consider an acceptable range.
Ok, thank you! I’m glad I asked!! 🙂
Hi Vin, sorry to ask another question! How many would I need to take therefore so that I would be in the medium rather than low range? I would at least like to be in the middle of the medium range rather than at the beginning of what would be considered ‘medium range’. Thank you as always.
Hi Lacey – aim for 1000 mg of Omega-3 per day…whatever that works out to in terms of pills.
So if you have a severe allergy with fish could you still take flax seed?
Hi Tom – yes. You’re better off taking algae DHA capsules. Flaxseed oil is nowhere near as healthy as oils that contain EPA and DHA Omega-3.
Hi, I found your website because I was searching for an alternative to fish oil. I’m a distance runner, female, in my mid-30s. I recently purchased Solgar Omega-3 Fish Oil Concentrate and took the first dose of 2 softgels with my dinner. The side effects were terrible and started within a few hours. My upset stomach (I’m being polite here) lasted for over 2 days. I’ve since returned the fish oil, and I don’t really want to try it again. I read somewhere that your average person doesn’t need to consume fish oil if they keep a healthy diet already full of foods high in Omega-3s. I can’t remember the source of that comment.
1, is that true? That fish oil supplements are basically superfluous for me? 2, if there is some sort of benefit for me, what can I take that won’t upset my stomach? I don’t have any known allergies to seafood or shellfish (I consume some sort of seafood 5-6 days a week). Would the algae-based DHA be the best way for me to go?
Thanks for your time!
Hi Shelby – if you eat seafood 5-6 times a week, there is no need to supplement with Omega-3 at all. If you must, you could try a smaller pill or a different brand or a lower dose.
Human conversion of ALA into EPA ranges from 8% to 20%. Conversion of ALA to DHA ranges from 1% to 9%. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil per 100 pounds of bodyweight is the recommended daily dose. To maintain general cardiovascular health we need 1000 mg daily combined EPA/DHA.
ALA content of one tablespoon of flaxseed oil is 6000 mg, conservatively speaking. Therefore each tablespoon of flaxseed oil provides:
20% conversion of 6000 mg of ALA = 1200 mg EPA
4% conversion of 6000 mg of ALA = 240 mg DHA
Combined, converted EPA/DHA per tablespoon flaxseed oil = 1440 mg
Si it’s easy to get enough www it flaxseed oil !
And ALA have a lot of advantage that EPA/DHA not have in cancer..that was proven by Dr Budwig, she try with many oils but recommend the flaxseed oil only,not the fish oil and never the fish oil alone without the whole fish because it loose a big part of his properties
Hi Thomas – if you are a vegan, then flaxseed oil provides an acceptable means of getting essential fatty acids. However, if you eat fish, then that is preferable to taking supplements, without a doubt.
As far as conversion, there are many, many factors involved in the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. There is also strong individual variations in capacity to convert. You cannot assume that your body converts the average amount of ALA to EPA. You really need isotope-labeled studies in humans to make a strong argument here.
There was a study that have 10.7 grams of ALA to lactating women and the study found virtually no net increase in DHA levels in breast milk. This, I think, highlights the key risk with using ALA. You may not convert much to DHA and you only get one chance to breastfeed your child from infancy to toddler age. If you go through that stage believing that your body does a great job, you may be wrong and harming your child. If you are opposed to taking fish oil supplements, there are algae-based DHA supplements. Pregnant and lactating women MUST get adequate DHA in the pre-converted form rather than hoping that their bodies do an efficient job. Other demographics can take that chance, but not pregnant or lactating women.
The two studies below used isotope-labeled ALA to measure conversion of ALA to DHA. It was about 0.1%.
Pawlosky, R. J., et al . Physiological compartmental analysis of alpha-linolenic acid metabolism in adult humans. J. Lipid Res. 42(8):1257-1265, 2001.
Hussein, N., et al. Long-chain conversion of [13C]linoleic acid and a-linolenic acid in response to marked changes in their dietary intake in men. J. Lipid. Res. 46: 269-280, 2005.
I stopped by your website while trying to find out which is the better, Fish Oil or Flaxseed Oil, and I think I got the answer clearly. I am also very impressed how quickly you response to any comment. Just wanna leave a comment thank you for all your dedication and effort.
Btw, your last post was in Sep 2015. Is it quite a long break?
Hi Tu – thanks. Ha, yes. I’ve been writing at innovixlabs.com lately, but plan to resume writing here soon. As for Flax vs fish, definitely fish if you’re looking for Omegas.
I liked your article and it makes very strong points. I will never denounce fish oil because it is a good source of EPA and DHA, I would just stress the importance of finding a quality source and one that isn’t already rancid when you buy. I do think there are two things that would significantly increase absorption of omega 3 and improve absorption from plant sources of it. 1) Grinding them before consumption. 2) Soaking and sprouting. If you do both, grind soaked and sprouted flax and chia and consume promptly, this is a game changer and do think you can have absorption and conversion on par with fish oil. What do you think?
Hi Eric – thanks for your input. A couple of counterpoints:
1) If you go to IFOS report, Labdoor, ConsumerLab.com etc. you can easily find fish oil supplements that are not rancid. That fish oil supplements are all rancid is a baseless nutritional bogeyman that is rarely factual. There are very few oil manufacturers and gelatin encapsulators who do not handle fish oil with absolute paranoia of oxidation. Bulk oil is usually treated with more care than inflammable or explosive materials. Oil headspace is always nitrogen or argon. Once the oil is encapsulated, oxidation comes to a virtual halt. All of this is easily and independently verified by looking for peroxide values, anisidine values, and totox numbers from sites like IFOS Consumer Reports.
2) Soaking or sprouting may help the body get at some nutrients, however, it doesn’t change the fact that you still have Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) as the only Omega-3 source in most plants. ALA is not EPA or DHA. No amount of grinding or sprouting will make ALA as useful for the body as fish oil. The body converts small portions of ALA to EPA and virtually none of it to DHA. ALA is extremely well-absorbed…that’s not the issue. The issues is the severe bottleneck in conversion from ALA to EPA and DHA. By the way, ALA from plants go rancid too.
If you have ethical, religious, or environmental reasons for avoiding fish, I totally get it. Those are valid reasons for not eating fish or meat. If so, your options are to consume algae-derived Omega-3 or DHA supplements. They are 100% vegan and give you Omega-3s your body can actually work with – no need for conversion. A little less desirable (but still very effective) option is to buy Ahiflower oil, which has SDA, which is very easily converted to EPA…far more efficiently than from ALA.
If you want to find out how effective ANY oil is, flax or fish oil, simply take a Omega-3 index test. It is not expensive and you don’t have to see a doctor or go to a lab. Companies like OmegaQuant will measure your EPA, DHA, levels. Make sure your total Omega-3 index is 8% or above. Until you know your Omega-3 index, you’re guessing. Even if you’re taking fish oil, you cannot nail down the right dosage until you measure your Omega-3 index. If I do not eat fish or Omega-3 supplements for 3 months, my Omega-3 index drops to a dangerous 3 to 4%. If I take 2 OmegaVia capsules daily, my Omega-3 index remains between 7 and 8%…good, but if I want 8 to 10% (my target), I need 3 OmegaVia capsules a day.