There is really only one good answer to this question.
But in order to get to that answer, we need to understand what omega-3s are, and why fish oils are so good.
Fish oils are the best source of omega 3 fatty acids, which belong to a group known as essential fatty acids. This means exactly what it sounds like: our bodies cannot function effectively without them. (Compare this with essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that we must take in for growth and repair of our cells).
Here is a very summarised list of potential effects of low essential fatty acids:
Reproductive problems, dry, scaly skin, depression, anxiety, learning difficulties, behavioural problems, coronary artery disease, inflammation.
Our bodies are very versatile, and can often make substances from other substances. For example, if you don’t get enough vitamin B3, your body can make it from the amino acid tryptophan. However, the important point about essential fatty acids is this:
Your body is unable to make essential fatty acids.
This means that the only way you are going to get these substances (which, don’t forget, are essential to human health) is to take them in through your diet. The only meaningful sources of omega-3s in the diet are oils from cold water fatty fish, including salmon and sardines, and flaxseed or linseed. There are also small amounts of omega-3s in dark leafy greens. (You can imagine how small these amounts are, as leafy greens are not exactly what you’d describe as oily).
So that’s easy! You eat salmon (or its less effective cousin, tuna) three times a week already. Safe!
If only it were that simple!
Eating other fats and oils interferes with the amount of omega-3s that reaches your cells. There are two major fatty acids that compete. One is called arachidonic acid. This is a non-essential fatty acid, the major source of which is meat. The second is the other group of essential fatty acids, the omega-6s. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in all nuts and seeds, and all oils made from nuts and seeds.
That’s lucky, you might think. You don’t eat almond oil, or sunflower oil, or sesame oil, or peanut oil, and only eat nuts occasionally.
Even if this is the case, you may be getting a lot more omega-6s than you think. Anything marked “vegetable oil” will almost certainly be high in omega 6s. This includes “blended vegetable oil”, all margarines and soft butter blends, and also the increasingly popular rice bran oil. It also includes any packaged items that contain vegetable oil. Have a look at the packet – even when they’re baked, not fried – you might be surprised to see that many packaged foods contain vegetable oil.
Furthermore, the trans fats present in any oil-containing food that has been heated at a high temperature also compete with omega-3 in the body.
So getting enough omega-3s is not just about eating omega-3 rich food regularly.
Doing that is rarely enough. It is much more so about reducing the competitors to omega-3s in the diet, including vegetable and seed oils, margarine, nuts, seeds and any food containing these, such as muesli. In fact, reducing the omega-6-rich foods can have an enormous impact on cellular levels of omega-3.
Reducing omega-6 intake to just 2.5% of daily calories can increase tissue levels of omega-3 by over 50%(that’s without taking any fish oil tablets!) On the other hand, we may need over 3000mg of omega-3 EPA and DHA to counter high intake of omega-6s in the diet. This is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
It’s worth doing a close study of your diet to see whether the balance of omega-3s to omega-6s is as good as you think it is. There is a website where you can go to find the “omega-3 score” of a huge number of foods. This is a score that takes into account both its omega-3 and omega-6 content – in other words, that which adds points and that which takes points away!
Go to www.fastlearners.org and see whether your diet consists of foods in the positive or in the negative.
If your diet is made up of a lot of the positive foods, it increases the likelihood that your tissue levels of omega-3s are good, but it doesn’t guarantee this. The only way to really know what your tissue levels are like (which depend on your lifetime eating habits) is to have a blood test done through a functional laboratory. I can order this for you here at Equilibria.
And that brings us to the answer to the question.
The only reason to not be taking omega-3s as a supplement is that you are confident of your tissue levels of omega-3s, and you are eating a diet that will maintain them. This diet would consist of a high intake of oily fish – probably daily – and some flaxseed. ALA from flaxseed has some benefits, but does not convert well to the required EPA and DHA. The enzyme that aids this conversion can be slowed down by lack of zinc, magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C.
If, like most of us, maintaining this diet at times becomes a little too arduous, you should be taking omega-3 supplements, ideally from fish oil or algae rather than flaxeed. Your skin, your brain, your heart and arteries, your memory and your hormones will thank you.