Are You Getting the Right Type of Omega-3 Fats?

krill, omega-3 fatsFifty years ago, two Danish epidemiologists pondered why Greenland's native Inuit had a very low rate of heart attacks despite eating a high-fat diet full of whale and seal meat.

They flew to Greenland and collected blood samples from 130 Inuit. Back in the lab, they found chemicals in the samples that they had never heard of before -- called omega-3 fats.

Today, omega-3 fatty acids have become a multibillion-dollar business. Americans spend $2.6 billion on nutritional supplements and foods fortified with omega-3 fats. But not all of this is money well spent.

Decades of research back up the claim that the types of omega-3’s found in marine animals such as fish and krill, called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), can protect your heart. But many of the foods you find at the supermarket are supplemented instead with alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), the type of omega-3 found in nuts and flax seeds.

Cardiologists believe it does not have the same benefits, because your body does a poor job at converting ALA to EPA.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Are you currently supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat such as krill oil? If not, what are you waiting for?

As you may know, I’m not a major fan of too many supplements, as I believe your best source for optimal nutrition is typically through whole foods. Krill oil, however, is one of my exceptions as most Americans consume far too few omega-3 fats.

Because of this, krill oil is recommended to virtually every new patient who comes to my Natural Health Center.

I’ll get into the myriad of reasons why taking omega-3 fat is so important in just a minute, but first it’s very important to understand the differences between the types of omega-3 fats on the market.

Which Type of Omega-3 Fat Should You be Taking?

There is a lot of confusion out there when it comes to omega-3 fats, and it’s important to get this sorted out as the type of omega-3 fat you take does make a difference in its health effects.

First and foremost, you want to choose an animal-based -- not a plant-based -- variety.

Most of the health benefits associated with omega-3 fats are linked to the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, not the plant-based omega-3 fat ALA.

ALA, which is the type of omega-3 found in flaxseed and nuts, is converted into EPA and DHA in your body, but only at a very low ratio.

So even if you eat large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert a relatively small amount into EPA and DHA, and only when sufficient enzymes are present.

This does not mean plant-based omega-3 fats are intrinsically harmful or that they should be avoided, only that you ideally want to include an animal-based form as well. Personally, I regularly include omega-3 (ALA) plant-based foods, like flax and hemp, in my diet, but these are always combined with animal-based omega-3 fats.

The Best Source of Animal-Based Omega-3 Fat?

When it comes to choosing between the animal-based omega-3 options, the primary options are fish, fish oil, cod liver oil or krill oil. As I’ll explain, I believe krill oil is the far superior choice on this list.

  • Fish: In a perfect world, you would be able to get all the omega-3s you need by eating fish. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our fish supply is now so heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants and toxins like mercury, PCBs, heavy metals and radioactive poisons that I just can’t recommend it any longer.
  • Fish oil: I used to recommend that you take fish oil to enhance your intake of omega-3 fats; and high-quality fish oils are certainly great products with many important health benefits. However, fish oil is weak in antioxidant content.

This is a major drawback for fish oil, because as you increase your intake of omega-3 fats by consuming fish oil, you actually increase your need for even more antioxidant protection.

This happens because fish oil is quite perishable, and oxidation leads to the formation of unhealthy free radicals. Therefore, antioxidants are required to ensure that the fish oil doesn't oxidize and become rancid inside your body. So, you need to consume additional antioxidants both for your health in general, AND for your increased need for antioxidants when using fish oil.

  • Krill oil: Last but certainly not least is my preferred choice for animal-based omega-3 fats, krill oil.

The antioxidant potency of krill oil is actually 48 times higher than fish oil, and krill oil also contains astaxanthin -- a unique marine-source flavonoid -- that creates a special bond with the EPA and DHA, which allows direct metabolism of the antioxidants, making them more bioavailable for you.

Krill is also a completely sustainable and environmentally friendly source of omega-3. Not only is krill the largest biomass in the world, but krill harvesting is one of the best regulated on the planet, using strict international precautionary catch limit regulations that are reviewed regularly to assure sustainability. You can read more about why krill oil is completely environmentally friendly here.

The Benefits of Omega-3 Fat

Omega-3 is one of the most important essential nutrients out there. Three recent studies even found that omega-3 deficiency can cause or contribute to serious health problems, both mental and physical, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year.

In 2008, three other studies also highlighted the vital importance of omega-3 fats for optimal health, underscoring the importance of maintaining a high dietary omega-3 intake throughout your life. 

The results showed that low concentrations of EPA and DHA resulted in an increased risk of death from all causes and accelerated cognitive decline. Those suffering from depression have also been found to have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood than nondepressed individuals.

It’s even been found to save the lives of children suffering from short bowel syndrome (SBS), and tests on children with learning disabilities has shown omega-3 to be an effective treatment. 

So the benefits of omega-3 fats truly run the gamut, from mental and behavioral health at any age, to preventing premature death from any number of diseases, including:

  • Coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Essential fatty acid deficiency in infancy (retinal and brain development)
  • Autoimmune disorders (e.g., lupus and nephropathy)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate
  • Mild hypertension
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Preventing premature delivery

You May be Deficient in Omega-3 Fats

Most people fail to consume sufficient quantities of this essential fat, and as a result omega-3 deficiency is likely the sixth biggest killer of Americans!

Most women have major deficiencies of this fat as well, and given the statistics, it’s very possible you do too.

A study in March, 1991 at the Mayo Clinic of 19 “normal” pregnant women consuming “normal” diets showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats. Another study of Inuit (Eskimo) women, compared to Canadian women, revealed omega-3 deficiency in the milk of the Canadian nursing mothers.

Why is this important?

Because animal cells cannot form omega-3 fats, a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fatty acids from its mother’s diet. A mother’s dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA status of the developing fetus, which can impact your child’s brain and eye health.

Since a fetus is dependent on the omega-3 fat from its mother’s diet, and a baby is also dependent on the omega-3 fat from this source as well (via breast milk), it’s essential that women have adequate supplies. Yet, most women do not get enough from diet alone.

This is why, for men and women alike, adding an animal-based omega-3 supplement to your daily diet is one of the simplest, and most powerful, things you can do for your health.

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