Friday, May 20, 2011

Fish Oil vs Plant Based Omega 3

Q:  Why do I need EPA and DHA?  (from
A:   Fish oil is not a magic bullet, but there are an infinite number of well-documented benefits for a whole host of lifestyle diseases and conditions.  The short answer is that EPA and DHA are specific types of polyunsatured omega-3 fatty acids.  Your body cannot produce these fatty acids – you must get them from the food you eat, or via supplementation.  EPA and DHA are natural anti-inflammatory agents, and as such, play a role in brain health, heart health, protection against cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression, improvement of skin conditions like psoriasis and acne, fetal brain development, inflammatory bowel disorders, and arthritis, to name a few.
Our typical diets are rich in another type of pro-inflammatory polyunsaturated fatty acid called omega-6.  When our dietary intake of omega-6′s far exceeds our intake of omega-3′s, our bodies experience a wide range of negative consequences, all with the underlying cause of increased systemic inflammation.  Minimizing dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids, and supplementing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, helps to reduce inflammation, and the wide range of downstream effects.

Yesterday i tweeted: "My preferred brand of fish oil is Carlson's Very Finest Liquid Fish Oil ~". Little did i know where this would lead.  I'm hopeful just to a healthy discussion and not hate mail. My tweet started a firestorm of comments. Two runners I respect very much; Krissy and Adam got involved promoting what they see as a better source of omega 3s, plant based.  Adam admitted his opinion is not unbiased being that he's sponsored by Udo's Oil... as is Krissy, Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes and many others. A long list of ultra elites make taking plant based omega 3 seem like a great idea, but for those of us who aren't vegans, is it? They both shared these two links written by Udo Erasmus (1st RULE: you must read all 4 links before you can comment):

Humans Turn ALA (Udo Oil) to EPA/DHA (Fish Oil)
Why even good fish oils are not enough

A few years before plant based omega 3 sources had become super popular I had already read and researched the question of fish oil vs. plant based. What I found was there didn't seem to be much of an argument at all supporting plant based omega-3 sources as a superior, unless you were vegan. The overwhelming evidence shows that plant based ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA. However, it's a pretty inefficient process and not a necessary one for those that can simply eat fish (or take fish oil liquid/pills).

With twitter being a terrible place to discuss anything I ended up writing the following email and rather than send it to a select few I decided to open the discussion online. Here is the email response I wrote:

"Twitter is tough for discussion. It seems like the argument really comes down to whether we can effectively convert ALA (from plants) into DHA and EPA. Research shows it's possible, but not optimal. So why not take the DHA and EPA directly from fish oil? My personal feeling is that Udo's opinion is biased because he makes his living off you believing that plant based is superior. So i'd love to see someone else, anyone else, that agrees with him and is at the same time a well respected scientist/doctor/chemist/researcher or the like, whilst having no financial incentive. I haven't been able to find anyone else who even considers this as a true argument.  it's assumed now that fish oil is the superior way to get your omega-3s (with the exception of vegans who don't have a choice).  Obviously that doesn't make it correct, but there are mountains of evidence that we're simply inefficient at the conversion.
"Research clearly indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA."
 ... far from the 36% Udo cites on his website. A number I've never seen anywhere else.
If you are in the plant based camp please read these two articles (you are not allowed to comment unless you have read all 4 - udo's up top and these 2 as well), if only for the other perspective. This one is from Chris Kresser who is the healthy skeptic.  He's a functional medicine practitioner with no vested interest in fish oil. If he thought plant based was the best, he'd say so without any financial incentive either way. Also, the one I tweeted yesterday from Mark Sisson — bonus article by Dr. Mercola — none of these guys sell fish-oil.
So now it's your turn. Adam mentioned there were others who share Udo's opinion that plant based is the best. I'm going to guess they are vegetarians? Do they have an agenda or a financial stake? If not, send 'em over. I'd love the other perspective (and someone other than Udo's)."

I'd like to mention I have no fish-oil sponsor. I'm interested in being as healthy as I possibly can be, so if the overwhelming evidence points to plant based products being superior, I will absolutely change my stance here.


tite said...

both! Namasté

Missy B. said...

great post, Matt! really gets the wheels turning on this one. i've noticed in my practice that many patients typically are not compliant with taking the recommended level (1200mg) of fish oil daily, and think that only 300-600 will suffice. current research states that 1200mg is much more cardio-protective as a lipid lowering agent.

sad, also that Udo is citing research that is nearly 10 years old and by all intents and purposes, outdated. the sample size is also very small at 6, which indicates very weak data. i found this article, published in 2008, with larger sample size of 62 which states superiority of fish oil over flax seed, but not by much:
page through to the graph on Figure 1, very informative.

also not mentioned on the plant-based delivery method is this: " [flax] Oil appears to be the most optimal mode for the delivery of ALA. However, its very short shelf half-life (< 30 days at 5°C) makes it difficult to use in commercial nutritional products for the public." cited in a 2008 Canadian flax study (n=30) comparing whole, ground, and flax oil.

very interesting stuff! thanks again.

Bobby said...

Perfect! I was getting tired of trying to cram a million thoughts down to 140 characters yesterday. So here goes...

The fish oil vs. plant-based oil discussion is one that appears to attract different interpretations of the scientific literature depending on one's bias. In Udo's article he cites many articles showing the varying levels of ALA to DHA/EPA conversion, most indicating an efficiency of 15-25%. He touts this as being wonderfully efficient, but I think many with a scientific background would argue that consumption of DHA and EPA without the need for ANY conversion would be the most efficient. Why spend metabolic effort in converting if you can get it for free? You wouldn't, unless of course you have a financial interest in selling the stuff.

To this point, Udo's article argues that fish contain high mercury levels or other environmental toxins, and fish oil can spoil. We are educated consumers and it is very possible to find healthy clean brands of fish oil made from sustainable sources that contain little to no environmental toxins. Nordic Naturals is one such brand, and you generally find it on the shelf next to Udo's. As for the spoiling, I personally don't trust anything that doesn't spoil (Remember that picture of the happy meal that looks exactly the same one year later? Real food is supposed to go bad. It's part of nature.) Keep your fish oil cold, problem solved.

Another point is manufacturing. Whereas fish oil is mechanically extracted and filtered in a fairly straightforward process, plant-based oils require chemical extraction (usually hexane) to remove the oil from the plant. I'll pass on the hexane, thanks.

The most important factor in the omega-3 (n3) discussion that seems to be getting glossed over in all of this is the total n3:n6 ratio that we are trying to balance. Research shows that total levels of n3 and n6 are not the single most important factor here (although n6 wins out over n3 with competitive inhibition, so the lower you keep both the better), but it is a balanced 1:1 ratio of n3:n6 that we should be aiming for to prevent our bodies becoming systemically inflamed. With n6's being extremely prevalent and n3's being notoriously absent in almost all diets, there is absolutely NO reason to supplement with additional n6, yet Udo's and other plant-based "health" oils do this exact thing. Yes, Udo's comes pre-packaged with what appears to be an ideal 2:1 ratio already in the bottle, but didn't we just say that ALA conversion was only ~15% efficient? The resulting dose of effective omega oils in this stuff gives you more n6 than you started out with!

Bobby said...


Ultimately, we should be trying to balance our omega levels without the use of supplementation, but rather by watching what we eat. Unfortunately, the standard American diet has a ridiculously high amount of inflammatory n6 (due in part to the large amounts of vegetable, canola, grapeseed and other plant-based oils, plus the n6-rich meat from grain-fed animals) and has little in the way of healthy anti-inflammatory n3 (fish, grass-fed meat, etc). For some, like vegetarians, they don't have a choice but to supplement because their dietary restrictions do not allow consumption of these naturally n3-rich foods, and they end up consuming many n6-rich foods as a predominant portion of the intake. For others, supplementation should only be an emergency intervention to get levels in check and reduce inflammation, then life-long maintenance should come from a balanced diet.

In the whole plant vs. fish oil debate, there is one additional oil that has yet to be discussed, and which may turn out to be the ideal n3 supplement to please all camps: DHA oil derived from algae. The capsules are vegan, the DHA levels are wonderfully high, and algae can be grown, harvested and processed in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable fashion. I sense that algal DHA supplementation will soon take over where folks are now taking fish oil, and I would strongly urge those taking plant-based oils to consider switching to this.

Apologies to Udo, his sponsored athletes, or anyone else that may feel attacked by any of the above. I assure you that was not my purpose, I am merely a hardcore nutrition geek that is trying to share what I have learned and help spread optimal health to the ultrarunning community that I know and love.

Happy trails,
Bobby Gill

Missy B. said...

Give it up for Bobby Gill! (head bowed... )

kellykb said...

Appreciate your nutritional posts and links to scientific articles. Very informative. I use Carlson's fish oil - in past have taken Udo's. I have had positive results from both products, however, I can't justify spending the $$$ on the Udo's brand..

travisliles said...

Matt, thanks for the good write-up here. While the twitter thread was tough to follow, it did open up a great conversation channel and ultimately helped me gain a better understanding of not only the Plant vs. Animal topic but also the importance of it.

Secondly and to me most important is the higher chance of prostate cancer when ALA is consumed from plants vs. animal that you linked That item alone would negate plant based oil suppliments even if there was an edge in ALA conversion in plant oil.

Lester Mendez said...

Good Morning. Hi I'm Lester from the Philippines, Health Professor. Just want to thanks to this nice write-ups of yours about Fish Oil. I'm doing a new research about fish oil and this article will really helps me to get more idea. Thanks again! Keep posting like this one. And after i finish my research, i will give a link, so you be able to read it my blog. : )

- Lester, omega 3 fish oil advocator and researcher

Graeme said...

the lies go on and on. Plan based omega 3 is far superior than taking DHA and EPA in fish oil supplements. Of course there is no money in telling you the plant based omega 3 is better for you. Because the corporations sell you these fish oil supplements and want you to think that they are better and make millions in the process.

Matt Hart said...

That is not a very compelling argument Graeme. Got ANY research to back that up? Do you even have an argument other than you somehow feel that the corporations behind fish oil are inherently more evil than the ones behind plant based?

If you've been following along - you gotta bring more than unfounded opinions.

Bobby said...

Graeme, Matt has a very good point. You make very far-fetched claims with no data to back it up. Since I had previously wrote a lengthy discussion on this topic, I'll back mine up with some peer-reviewed literature:

ladyguinevere28 said...

I'd like to state here that I am not in financial stake nor sponsoring any fish oil products and I am not also a vegans. I am just an ordinary person just like seeking the best healthy food that I can possibly get.

Having said all the evidences you have here, I might as well like to say that for us to get omega 3 it is much better and convenient for me to take the supplements. Those supplements that are available in the market where created for us to get that fatty acids that need for our body. However, just like any other, who are very cautious we also need to take into consideration the information in a certain supplements. Because some fish oil supplement contain high PCB which are carcinogens.

Just being extra careful and cautious about the taking.

Thank you

Brian Huff said...

Thanks for the post, Matt. Here's some research to support Graemme's post (just came across it this morning)


Bobby said...

@ Brian Huff - Interesting read. PCRM is a group of vegetarian/vegan docs, so you have to look deeper into the studies they mention to see if what PCRM is reporting is accurate from the results.

In this case, the study they lead with (that high DHA = higher prostate cancer) was not actually designed to test this hypothesis. It was a drug trial designed to test a cholesterol-lowering medication, and in those found to have the aggressive prostate cancer, fish oil was usually taken with the investigational drug. That right there is HUGE variable that could affect outcomes. Add in that the trial wasn't designed or statistically powered to evaluate DHA levels, the correlation was very weak to begin with... and you can start to see that PCRM used a brief snippet of an otherwise unrelated article to justify their anti-fish oil stance. Context matters. I'm sure if you dig around in the other papers PCRM lists there will be similar trends.

Here is some elaboration from on the results of this specific trial:

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Chianergy said...

A couple of points in response to Bobby Gill:

1. Plant oils are NOT all chemically extracted. Our chia seed oil, for example, is pressed - no chemicals.

2. Bobby points out the importance of the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, but neglects to mention that many marine oil supplements (including some of the Nordic Naturals products that he mentions) are only around 30% total Omega-3. What's the other 70%?

Henry Blacly said...

The CSIRO, a leading agricultural research organisation in Australia, is working on developing plant based Omega 3 sources of the quality that rival fish oil. Flaxseed oils, for example, can only provide short-chain omega-3 oils, but not the beneficial long chain omega-3 oils containing DHA.

Back in 2011 CSIRO were given $50mill to develop plant genetics for canola plants to produce the ‘DHA-rich’ long chain omega-3 oils. Their research is advanced and have recently made significant breakthroughs.

I don't think there is any doubt about the extensive research using blind/placebo analysis of DHA and EPA long chain omega-3s fatty acids for their roles in heart and brain health, child and infant development, treating inflammation and other health functions. In my own research into plant based oils, particulary UDO, the 'evidence' is testimonial and I haven't seen one conclusive scientific research paper that concludes similar results of fish based oils.

Im only interested in reviewing researching papers published in reputable scientific journals.

Claire said...

This study is interesting especially for vegans/vegetarians