Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Skinny on Fish Oil Supplementation

Remember as a kid when your Mother or Grandmother shoved a spoonful of disgusting, stinky cod liver oil down your throat each morning? Somehow, I managed to sidestep that landmine but I know it was a routine that many youngsters had to endure. Thankfully, fish oil supplementation has come a long way since then. We now understand much more about the nutritional benefits of consuming these oils and, thankfully, manufacturers have developed their products to become much more palatable. But what do we need to know about fish oil?

What is Fish Oil?

Quite simply, 'fish oil' refers to the oils found in certain fatty fish. Examples of these fish include:

  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Salmon
  • Anchovies
  • Trout
  • Tuna
  • Whitebait

There are two main polyunsaturated fatty acids present in fish oil which are known to have significant health benefits and are important to include in a healthy diet. They fall within a classification called Omega-3's and are named:

  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

Health Benefits

In order to reap the benefits of omega-3 consumption, we need to ensure that the ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet are as close to 1:1 as possible. Omega-6's are generally found in processed convenience foods which are high in things like sunflower, safflower, peanut and corn oils. Due to our typical western diet, achieving this ratio is a very big ask. I recently heard that the American average was between 1:10-1:20. I can only imagine that us in the UK are similarly screwed!

It's thought that a healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 can decrease the risk of developing, or reducing symptoms in the following:

  • Heart Disease
  • Certain forms of Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Asthma
  • Insomnia
  • Sleep Apnoea

Reasons to Consider Supplementation

Unfortunately, the human body cannot make these nutrients itself. It's therefore really important that we make sure that they're included in the diet. One option is to do this by solely consuming whole foods that contain these oils. The problem here is that modern manufacturing techniques often remove omega-3's either partially or, in the case of a process called hydrogenation (think margarine and cream cheese) entirely! This is typically done to enhance the shelf life of a product.

If you're like me and don't really enjoy the taste of fish all too much, then supplementation is certainly something to think about. I try to eat mackerel and salmon once a week but can't bring myself to struggle down much else. We also need to be aware that the fish we buy in our supermarkets may not be as good a quality as we'd like to think it is. One major problem with eating lots of seafood is the toxic load that it often carries. The most commonly acknowledged toxin present in the fish we eat is mercury. A good rule to go by here is that the bigger the fish (in size and therefore standing in the food chain) the higher the concentration of mercury. Tuna, marlin, shark and swordfish are all good examples here. Eat enough of these and you're likely to suffer.

Because of the strict manufacturing processes and testing that the supplement industry is subjected to, it's actually quite easy to find a fish oil supplement that is of a good quality and low in toxins - as long as you do your research!

How Much is Enough?

You're probably going to get a different answer to this from every website, journal or blog you turn to. What I will say is that eating 2-3 portions of different oily fish per week is a great start. From there you might want to consider supplementing on top. I struggled to find an official NHS recommendation for consumption. This NHS document says that 3g or less is safe to take per day. I also found this, much more useful table on the International Fish Oil Standards Program website:

Charles Poliquin, who's probably the best known strength and conditioning expert on the planet actually suggests that most people have much more than that. You can learn about what he thinks with his How Much Fish Oil Do You Really Need? Ten Steps To Optimise Fat Intake article.

How to choose a Fish Oil Supplement

So, let's say that you've decided that you probably don't eat enough oily fish and you'd like to try supplementation. I'd do the following:
  1. Visit the International Fish Oil Standards Program website and check out their list of 5 star certified fish oil products.
  2. Cross reference with Labdoor's Top Ten Fish Oil Supplements
  3. Choose one in your price range that features on both lists and throw some money at it!

Useful Fish Oil Tips

  1. If it smells fishy it's gone rancid and will do more harm than good
  2. Store fish oil in the fridge or freezer to preserve shelf life
  3. Store fish oil in the dark as it will oxidise when subjected to sunlight - be wary of products that use transparent packaging
  4. You can take fish oil supplements at any time of day
  5. Krill oil is a type of fish oil that is marketed as having a lower toxic load and as being more sustainable. Read around this and decide for yourself whether this aligns with your ethics. Beware - it's usually much more expensive!

I really hope this post has shone some light on the subject of fish oil supplementation. If you have any questions be sure to comment below and I'll do my best to help you further.

As always, I'd recommend using as a point of reference for research-backed impartial information on dietary supplements.

SEA ya later! (sorry)


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