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Fish vs. Flax

If you’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle, you’d think you’d want to avoid something called ‘omega-3 fatty acids,’ right?

Wrong. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy healing oils that have been associated with the treatment and prevention of many health concerns, including:

  • Inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, eczema
  • Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s
  • Cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADD

Flaxseed oil and fish oil are the most common omega-3 fatty acids. But how do you know what kind of omega-3 fatty acid is better for you?

Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two major groups:

  • Plant derived, from flaxseed
  • Marine derived, from fish oil, algae, some fungi

Omega-3 fatty acids are good for you because they are one of the keys in cardiovascular disease prevention and vital to many cellular processes that happen in the body.

Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is the “parent” compound from which all other omega-3 fatty acids originate.

Fish such as mackerel, salmon, and herring, on the other hand, contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

These two groups have structural differences and therefore differ in their metabolism and ultimate health effects. ALA’s only known essential role is to serve as a precursor to EPA and DHA. Some studies have reported conversions of up to 15%, but most researchers believe adults can only convert a small amount of ALA to EPA/DHA (perhaps less than 1%).

One reason why ALA is so poorly converted to EPA and DHA is because it is mostly used as energy, and thus rapidly removed from the blood, whereas EPA and DHA are not. A diet high in trans fats, like those in processed baked goods, and saturated fats, like those in meat and dairy can also inhibit conversion. A deficiency of vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium, or zinc can also decrease the conversion.

Although many studies have found that if you increase you intake of ALA, you also increase levels of EPA in your body, the increase is modest at best. In contrast, taking even small amounts of preformed EPA and DHA increases body stores of the two fats considerably.

If your diet is lacking good healthy fats like flax or fish, and you’re trying to get and stay healthy, you may want to consider taking a supplement to boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish based omega-3 supplements work best, but if fish is not part of your regular diet, consider taking flaxseed oil and a preformed DHA supplement (from algae) as an alternative. But remember: you will have to take in significantly more flaxseed oil than fish-based oil to get the same health benefits.