Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE
There are good fats and there are bad fats. Artificially produced trans-fatty
acids are bad in any amount and saturated fats from animal products should
be kept to a minimum.
The best fats or oils rather, since they are liquid at room temperature,
are those that contain the essential fatty acids so named because without
them we die. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated and grouped into
two families, the omega-6 EFAs and the omega-3 EFAs.
Fats are molecules with a long carbon chain that has two ends. One end
has a methyl group and the other end has a carboxyl group.
The Greek symbol "omega" is used as it is the last letter in the Greek
alphabet. When omega is used in reference to fatty acids it is referring
to the methyl end of the fatty acid.
Thus Omega-3 fatty acids refer to the family of fatty acids in which the
first cis double bond closest to the methyl end of the fat is in the 3rd
position. Omega-6 refers to the family of fatty acids where the first cis
double bond closest to the methyl end is in the 6th position.
Seemingly minor differences in their molecular structure make the two EFA
families act very differently in the body. While the metabolic products
of omega-6 acids promote inflammation, blood clotting, and tumor growth,
the omega-3 acids act entirely opposite.
Although we do need both omega-3s and omega-6s it is becoming increasingly
clear that an excess of omega-6 fatty acids
can have dire consequences.
Many scientists believe that a major reason for the high incidence of heart
disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some forms
of cancer is the profound imbalance between our intake of omega-6 and omega-3
Our ancestors evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of about
1:1. A massive change in dietary habits over the last few centuries has
changed this ratio to something closer to 20:1 and this spells trouble.
Sources and requirements
The main sources of omega-6 fats are vegetable oils such as corn oil and
soy oil that contain a high proportion of linoleic acid. Omega-3 fats are
found in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and marine plankton and fatty fish.
The main component of flaxseed and walnut oils is alpha-linolenic acid
while the predominant fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oils are
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
The most beneficial and active of these fatty
acids are EPA and DHA.
Alpha-linolenic acid can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the
conversion is quite inefficient especially in older people. [1, 2]
Scientists were first alerted to the many benefits of EPA and DHA in the
early 1970s when Danish physicians observed that Greenland Eskimos had an
exceptionally low incidence of heart disease and arthritis despite the fact
that they consumed a high-fat diet.
Intensive research soon discovered that two of the fats (oils) they consumed
in large quantities, EPA and DHA, were actually highly beneficial. More
recent research has established that fish oils (EPA and DHA) play a crucial
role in the prevention of atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression, and
Clinical trials have shown that fish oil supplementation is effective in
the treatment of many disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes,
ulcerative colitis, and Raynaud's disease. [1-5]
Good for the brain and children too
The human brain is one of the largest "consumers" of DHA. A normal adult
human brain contains more than 20 grams of DHA. Low DHA levels have been
linked to low brain serotonin levels which again are connected to an increased
tendency to depression, suicide, and violence.
A high intake of fish has been linked to a significant decrease in age-related
memory loss and cognitive function impairment and a lower risk of developing
Alzheimer's disease. A recent study found that Alzheimer's patients given
an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant
improvement in their quality of life.[6-9]
Several studies have established a clear association between low levels
of omega-3 fatty acids and depression. Other studies have shown that countries
with a high level of fish consumption have fewer cases of depression.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School have successfully used fish oil supplementation
to treat bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) and British researchers
report encouraging results in the treatment of schizophrenia. [10-15]
An adequate intake of DHA and EPA is particularly important during pregnancy
and lactation. During this time the mother must supply all the baby's needs
for DHA and EPA because it is unable to synthesize these essential fatty
acids itself. DHA makes up 15 to 20% of the cerebral cortex and 30 to 60%
of the retina so it is absolutely necessary for normal development of the
fetus and baby.
There is some evidence that an insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids
may increase the risk of premature birth and an abnormally low birth weight.
There is also emerging evidence that low levels
of omega-3 acids are associated with hyperactivity in children.
[1, 3, 16- 22]
The constant drain on a mother's DHA reserves can easily lead to a deficiency
and some researchers believe that preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood
pressure) and postpartum depression could be linked to a DHA deficiency.
Experts recommend that women get at least 500-600 mg of DHA every day during
pregnancy and lactation. The easiest way to ensure this intake is to take
a good fish oil supplement daily. [17-19]
Researchers at the University of Sydney have found that children who regularly
eat fresh, oily fish have a four times lower risk of developing asthma than
do children who rarely eat such fish. They speculate that EPA present in
the fish may prevent the development of asthma or reduce its severity by
reducing airway inflammation and responsiveness.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming have found that supplementation
with 3.3 grams/day of fish oil markedly reduces
breathing difficulties and other symptoms in asthma patients.
Other research has found fish oil to be beneficial in the treatment of other
lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis and emphysema. [23- 29]
The heart's best friend
An enormous amount of medical literature testifies to the fact that fish
oils prevent and may help to ameliorate or reverse atherosclerosis, angina,
heart attack, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, stroke, and peripheral
vascular disease. Fish oils help maintain the elasticity of artery walls,
prevent blood clotting, reduce blood pressure and stabilize heart rhythm.
Danish researchers have concluded that fish oil supplementation may help
prevent arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in healthy men. An Italian
study of 11,000 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing
with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, a stroke
A group of German researchers found that fish oil supplementation for 2
years caused regression of atherosclerotic deposits and American medical
researchers report that men who consume fish once or more every week have
a 50% lower risk of dying from
a sudden cardiac event than do men who eat fish less than once a month.
Greek researchers report that fish oil supplementation (10 grams/day) reduces
the number of attacks by 41% in men suffering from angina. Norwegian medical
doctors have found that fish oil supplementation reduces the severity of
a heart attack and Indian researchers report that supplementation started
immediately after a heart attack reduces future complications.
Bypass surgery and angioplasty patients reportedly
also benefit from fish oils and clinical trials have shown that
fish oils are safe for heart disease patients. The evidence is indeed overwhelming.
An adequate daily intake (about 1 gram) of EPA and DHA is essential to maintain
a healthy heart. Fish oils are especially important for diabetics who have
an increased risk of heart disease. [41- 49]
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found that supplementing
with as little as 2 grams/day of fish oil (410 mg of EPA plus 285 mg of
DHA) can lower diastolic pressure by 4.4 mm Hg and systolic pressure by
6.5 mm Hg in people with elevated blood pressure. Enough to avoid taking
drugs in cases of borderline hypertension. Several other clinical trials
have confirmed that fish oils are indeed effective in lowering high blood
pressure and that they may work even better if combined with a program of
salt restriction. [50-55]
Reduces pain and helps prevent cancer
Fish oils are particularly effective in reducing inflammation and can be
of great benefit to people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative
colitis. Daily supplementation with as little as 2.7 grams of EPA and 1.8
grams of DHA can markedly reduce the number of tender joints and increase
the time before fatigue sets in. Some studies have also noted a decrease
in morning stiffness and at least two clinical trials concluded that arthritis
patients who took fish oils could eliminate or sharply reduce their use
of NSAIDs and other arthritis drugs. [56-61]
Patients with ulcerative colitis have abnormally
low blood levels of EPA.
Clinical trials have shown that supplementation with fish oil (2.7 grams
of EPA and 1.8 grams of DHA daily) can reduce the severity of the condition
by more than 50% and enable many patients to discontinue anti-inflammatory
medication and steroids. [62-64]
There is now also considerable evidence that fish oil consumption can delay
or reduce tumor development in breast cancer. Studies have also shown that
a high blood level of omega-3 fatty acids combined with a low level of omega-6
acids reduces the risk of developing breast cancer.
Daily supplementation with as little as 2.5 grams of fish oils has been
found effective in preventing the progression from benign polyps to colon
cancer and Korean researchers recently reported that prostate cancer patients
have low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Greek researchers report that
fish oil supplementation improves survival and quality of life in terminally
ill cancer patients. [65-73]
Safe and easily available
It is estimated that 85% or more of people in the Western world are deficient
in omega-3 fatty acids and most get far too
much of the omega-6 fatty acids. Vegetarian diets, for example,
tend to be very high in omega-6.
The recommended daily intake of EPA plus DHA is about 650 mg rising to
1000 mg/day during pregnancy and lactation. Clinical trials have used anywhere
from 1 g/day to 10 g/day, but little additional benefit has been observed
at levels above 5 g/day of EPA and DHA combined.
The benefits of therapeutic supplementation may become evident in a few
weeks when blood parameters (triglycerides, fibrinogen) are involved, but
may take 3 months or longer to materialize in degenerative diseases like
atherosclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. [74, 75]
The processing and packaging of the fish oil are crucial in determining
its quality. Low quality oils may be quite
unstable and contain significant amounts of mercury, pesticides,
and undesirable oxidation products.
High quality oils are stabilized with adequate amounts of vitamin E and
are packaged in individual foil pouches or other packaging impervious to
light and oxygen. Some very recent research carried out at the University
of Minnesota found that emulsified fish oils are much better absorbed than
the straight oils in gelatin capsules. 
Cod liver oils and fish oils are not the same. Cod liver oil is extracted
from cod liver and is an excellent source of vitamins A and D. Fish oils
are extracted from the tissues (flesh) of fatty fish like salmon and herring
and are good sources of EPA and DHA.
Fish oils contain very little vitamin A and D, but cod liver oil does contain
EPA and DHA. However, you would probably exceed the recommended daily intake
of vitamins A and D if you were to try to obtain therapeutic amounts of
EPA and DHA from cod liver oil.
Supplementing with fish oils has been found
to be entirely safe even for periods as long as 7 years and no
significant adverse effects have been reported in hundreds of clinical trials
using as much as 18 grams/day of fish oils. Fish oil supplementation does,
however, lower blood concentrations of vitamin E so it is a good idea to
take extra vitamin E when adding fish oils to your diet.
A clinical trial carried out by the US Department of Agriculture found
that taking 200 mg/day of synthetic vitamin E (equivalent to about 100 IU
of natural alpha-tocopherol) is sufficient to completely counteract this
effect of fish oil supplementation. [74, 75, 77, 78]