Part of my ongoing journey to clean living includes cleaning up my diet. In the process of reading about nutrition, researching organics vs conventional, and examining how to remove sugar from my diet, I came across many health trends.
I began writing this article with the intention of highlighting several of these dubious trends floating around at the moment. I organised my research and began writing about fish oil supplements. But I soon realised that this topic deserves a blog post all of its own. The fish oil industry is big, profitable industry. $1.2 billion dollars to be precise. So of course there would be a lot of people telling you how good it is for you, and how it can heal x, y, and z.
From an ecological perspective, fish oil is a sustainability nightmare. From a health and wellness perspective, it is nothing more than a bandaid for a bigger problem, with the potential to carry unintended health consequences.
The Ecological Argument
As a marine sciences graduate, I could spend days discussing the ecological implications of consuming fish oil supplements (and fish in general). However, I will do my best to be succinct.
Where does it come from?
In a 2012 study, a group of researchers determined that out of all fish harvested, 70% of fish are processed (canned, smoked, filleted, etc.). From these processed fish, there ends up being over 50% waste (bones, skin). Oils can be extracted from this waste material and used to create fish oil supplements.
Isn‘t turning waste into usable products a good thing?
You would think so. But the next question we must ask is where do these fish come from? Are they wild or farmed? Currently, over 50% of fish consumed is farmed, and the World Bank estimates that by 2030, the number will jump to 62%. So what’s the big deal – if we farm fish, aren’t we protecting the wild ones?
The answer is a resounding no. Most fish farms are cesspools of disease and bacteria due to the overcrowded conditions the fish reside in. Because bacteria and illness are ever present, fish farmers need to use antibiotics and medications to keep the fish alive. Doesn’t sound like the healthiest environment does it?
Does the barrier work?
The vast majority of fish farms are situated in existing water bodies. Oceans, lakes etc. are used to house the farmed fish, with a permeable barrier (netting or other) separating the farmed fish from the wild ones. This barrier prevents the wild fish from entering the farm, and the farm fish from escaping, but there’s a lot it doesn’t do. It does not prevent bacteria from spreading into the water body and therefore exposing the wild fish to disease.
The barrier also does not prevent fertilization from occurring. Fish are external fertilisers. This means their eggs and sperm are released externally into the water body. Farmed fish and wild fish could end up fertilizing together. The danger in this is that the genetic integrity of the wild population could be compromised with the potentially inbred and genetically invariable traits of the farmed fish. In the wild, only the “strongest” (healthiest, most suited to their environment) fish survive. Farmed fish have been so filled with medications to survive, that the quality of their genes doesn’t matter. Which it doesn’t from the perspective of “it’s just going on my dinner plate”. But from the perspective of those poor quality genes filtering into the wild population, there could be severe survival consequences for the wild offspring who no longer have the “strongest” genes.
There is nothing to stop the medications applied to fish in farms from entering the water body. These medications are then in the natural environment for other marine organisms to be exposed to. From bottom feeders and detritivores to fish and marine birds, these antibiotics and medicines can work their way through the wild food chain.
What we know about chemicals and wildlife is that the presence of a specific chemical increases in concentration as you go up the food chain. For example, the bird eats the fish that eats the smaller fish that eats the snail that eats the algae – and at each of these steps the chemical is present. It accumulates as you move up the food chain until your marine bird is heavily dosed with that specific chemical.
What about wild populations?
If you are certain that your fish oil supplement is from a wild and not farmed fish population, maybe that’s better? After all, you can be sure that there is no issue regarding antibiotics and medications or genetic implications for wild populations.
I would exercise extreme caution here. If your fish oil product claims to be from wild populations, how can you be sure those populations were sustainably harvested? It is well known that overfishing and illegal harvest is an ongoing problem. 85% of all commercial fish stocks are now fished up to their biological limits and beyond. This means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sustainably harvested fish. Not to mention, 20-32% of all seafood imported into America is illegal or unreported.
If you do choose to purchase fish oil (and fish in general) I recommend looking for a reputable source verifying that the fish were harvested sustainably. Ocean Wise and Seafood Watch are organizations I recommend. Do not however rely on the “organic” stamps such as USDA or QAI as these groups simply certify the absence of chemicals. They do not account for ecological impact.
The Nutritional Argument
Fish oil has come under attack recently; it’s critics claim the purported benefits are not standing up to scrutiny. What are these supposed benefits? Let’s first discuss why someone would consume fish oil in the first place.
- Heart health.
- Weight loss.
- Improved immunity.
- Treatment for AIDS.
- Anti-inflammatory properties.
- Depression and Anxiety.
- Eye disorders.
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Skin Care and Acne.
- Hair care.
- ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
- Blood Circulation.
Wow – sounds like a miracle drug! Or a snake oil…
Allegedly, all of these ailments can be improved with the addition of fish oil because of the Omega-3 fatty acids contained in the oil.
Omega Fatty Acids
Humans do, without a doubt, need Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids to maintain good health. The body can synthesize omega-9 fatty acids, but omega 3 and 6 are only obtained through consuming foods rich in them.
But just as important as simply consuming these fatty acids is, you need to ensure you have a proper balance of omega 3-6. The proper ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids is accepted to be 1:4, though research suggests our early ancestors consumed a ratio closer in proportion of 1:1. The ratio prevalent in the current western diet is between 1:10 and 1:25. Unreal.
An improper balance
Having an improper balance of omega fatty acids can trigger numerous health issues including:
Hmm. Looks somewhat familiar to the list of what fish oil (high in Omega 3) can remedy. Many of these ailments can be eased by reducing inflammation.
…what this means is that the more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. A diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. A diet of a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 will reduce inflammation.
Okay, so bottom line – we need a proper ratio of these fatty acids. That’s why people take fish oil. It increases their omega 3 fatty acid levels to be more proportionate to omega 6 But this is just a bandaid to a bigger problem.
The REAL problem
Fish oil offers us this solution: you can keep eating all those high fat, oily, staples in the western diet (full of omega 6) – just make sure you take your fish oil pills to balance it out.
Does anyone else see a problem here?
The real issue is that we need to stop consuming so many omega 6’s! Instead of increasing our omega 3 intake, my radical suggestion is to decrease our omega 6 intake. This suggestion is echoed by others, including Dr. Pam Popper, executive director of Wellness Forum Health.
It’s something we all know, and we’ve been told time and time again.
Consume less vegetable oils, less fried foods, less foods high in polyunsaturated fats (baked goods, potato chips, etc.), less meats. Ideally, meats would be higher in omega-3, but because commercially fed livestock eat mostly corn and soy, the fats present in the meat are primarily omega-6.
Instead, add more whole plant based foods to your diet. I’m not suggesting you need to be a vegan or even a vegetarian. But let’s be real. When it comes to eating, it’s all about choice. Personal choice. You don’t need to eat meat 3 times a day (or even 3 times a week), substitute a salad in one of those meals. Cut the junk food and baked treats. Need a snack? Grab an apple, some grapes, or carrot sticks. The little decisions we make every time we eat can add up to a huge impact on our overall health. In this case, lowering our omega 6 levels.
It’s a choice only you can make. And it’s admittedly difficult when we’ve trained our taste buds to desire sugary, oily, salty pleasure foods. But our tastes adapt, and our bodies will thank us for the change.
The last point I wanted to briefly touch on is regarding the quality of fish oil products. We discussed where the oil comes from, and talked about the antibiotics and medicines used to treat the farmed fish. My question regarding fish oil quality would be, how can we know how much of these medicines have accumulated in the tissues of the fish? Are the fish parts used for oil heavily tainted with the medicines used to treat the fish? Do the fish pills in my grocery store contain residual medicines that could affect my own health?
Alejandro Marangoni of the University of Guelf also suggests that the oil in many fish oil pills could be oxidized or spoiled. If we are consuming rancid, oxidized oil, this could be very detrimental to our health.
Lastly, the unintended risk of wasting your precious finances. Is there a large body of evidence that backs up the claims made about fish oil health benefits? One study from the National Institute of Health claims that, “Omega-3s in supplement form have not been shown to protect against heart disease.” Fish oil is supposed to improve blood vessel function, but a recent study shows that patients consuming fish oil failed to show any difference in fistula failure (failure of surgical holes created to access clogged blood vessels) compared to patients to did not take fish oil. Skepticism is mounting in the scientific community.
Alternatives to fish oil
You can still improve your omega fatty acid ratio without consuming fish oils. We discussed previously how lowering your omega-6 levels can contribute to a healthier ratio. Eat your fruits and veggies and cut the junk. Our moms have been saying it to us for years, and there’s a reason. Combine this with the periodic consumption of wild, sustainably harvested (look for the Ocean Wise or Seafood Watch seals) fish, and you can be sure that your omega fatty acid levels will improve. It amazes me how such simple changes in diet, can have such an impact on our health. Are you ready to make some changes?
Do take fish oil supplements? Why or why not? Have you found them to improve your health? Comment below and let me know!