I’ve found that after residing in the Paleosphere for a few years, there are very few things that I’m able to take at face value anymore. I find that instead of just blindly accepting what someone tells me, I ask lots of questions, and do a substantial amount of my own research BEFORE I will subscribe to an idea. I’m not really sure that any one person out there has all of the answers to this whole nutrition thing. Some people hold several pieces of the pie, while others hold NONE…..although those poor shmucks often think that they know everything, and make a whole lot of noise trying to prove that to the world.
One of the most pervasive beliefs within the Paleo diet (and even within the mainstream), right now is that fish oil is good for us. The had me hook, line, and sinker for a while (pun intended), but the more I think about it, the less convincing the idea is to me. Lately I’ve been asking myself the question, “Is fish oil really any better than vegetable oil?”
Actual health benefits aside, let’s first talk about the literal “Paleo perspective” on such things. What do we try to do on Paleo? We try to eat whole, real, unprocessed foods to get the nutrients we need, right? So if a Paleo practitioner wants to ensure that they are getting enough EPA, and DHA, should we immediately reach for a bottle of processed oil that was mechanically removed from some un-seen seafood source (we hope it’s really fish!), and bottled by some person that we’ve also never seen……or, should we just eat more fish?
The obvious answer is to just eat more fish…..but I’m not convinced that omega-3 Fatty Acids are as important to us as the mainstream would have us believe. The term “essential” officially means:
“a substance that is not synthesized by the body in a quantity sufficient for normal health and growth and that must be obtained from the diet” – Webster’s Dictionary
So we know that we have to get omega fatty acids from our diet, but there is no RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) established for them, and no one really even started paying attention to them until the 1970s.
“The health benefits of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — DHA and EPA omega-3 — are the best known. These benefits were discovered in the 1970s by researchers studying the Greenland Inuit Tribe. The Greenland Inuit people consumed large amounts of fat from meat, but displayed virtually no cardiovascular disease. The high level of omega-3 fatty acids consumed by the Inuit reduced triglycerides, heart rate, blood pressure, and atherosclerosis.” – Wikipedia.org
The fact that the Inuit people are (were) so healthy, probably can’t be completely attributed to omega-3 fatty acids, considering that they have little to no detrimental environmental factors (except for the extreme cold), no grain consumption, and none of the modern stresses that we deal with today. The FDA obviously isn’t buying the supposed benefits either:
“On September 8, 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave “qualified health claim” status to EPA and DHA n−3 fatty acids, stating that “supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA [n−3] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” This updated and modified their health risk advice letter of 2001 (see below). As of this writing, regulatory agencies[who?] do not accept that there is sufficient evidence for any of the suggested benefits of DHA and EPA other than for cardiovascular health, and further claims should be treated with caution” – Wikipedia.org
The thing is that fish oil is a polyunsaturated fat. It’s unsaturated, which means that unlike saturated fats, it is liquid at low temperatures, and room temperature. It also means that it is highly unstable, and prone to perioxidation when it is exposed to the air, or to warm temperatures. On the other hand, saturated fats remain solid at room temperature, and don’t go rancid like the unsaturated fats do. When a fat goes rancid inside the body, it causes oxidative damage. It is already established that arterial plaque, is composed of oxidized polyunsaturated fats. See an article about that here. So why do we believe that supplementing with such oils is good? Many of the commercially available fish oil supplements are already rancid when we buy them!
Dr. Ray Peat has some very poignant things to say about fish oil and its effects on human health, in his article entitled “The Great Fish Oil Experiment”:
“In experiments that last just a few weeks or months, there may not be time for cancers to develop, and on that time scale, the immunosuppressive and antiinflammatory effects of oxidized fish oil might seem beneficial. For a few decades, x-ray treatments were used to relieve inflammatory conditions, and most of the doctors who promoted the treatment were able to retire before their patients began suffering the fatal effects of atrophy, fibrosis, and cancer. (But a few people are still advocating x-ray therapy for inflammatory diseases, e.g., Hildebrandt, et al., 2003.) The fish oil fad is now just as old as the x-ray fad was at its peak of popularity, and if its antiinflammatory actions involve the same mechanisms as the antiinflammatory immunosuppressive x-ray treatments, then we can expect to see another epidemic of fibrotic conditions and cancer in about 15 to 20 years.”
“The most popular way of arguing that fish oil will prevent heart disease is to show that it lowers blood lipids, continuing the old approach of the American Heart Association’s “heart protective diet.” Unfortunately for that argument, it’s now known that the triglycerides in the blood are decreased because of the fish oil’s toxic effects on the liver (Hagve and Christophersen, 1988; Ritskes-Hoitinga, et al., 1998). In experiments with rats, EPA and DHA lowered blood lipids only when given to rats that had been fed, in which case the fats were incorporated into tissues, and suppressed mitochondrial respiration (Osmundsen, et al., 1998).”
“Another way of arguing for the use of fish oil or other omega-3 fats is to show a correlation between disease and a decreased amount of EPA, DHA, or arachidonic acid in the tissues, and to say “these oils are deficient, the disease is caused by a deficiency of essential fatty acids.” Those oils are extremely susceptible to oxidation, so they tend to spontaneously disappear in response to tissue injury, cellular excitation, the increased energy demands of stress, exposure to toxins or ionizing radiation, or even exposure to light. That spontaneous oxidation is what made them useful as varnish or paint medium. But it is what makes them sensitize the tissues to injury. Their “deficiency” in the tissues frequently corresponds to the intensity of oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation; it is usually their presence, rather than their deficiency, that created the disposition for the disease.”
”One of the earliest harmful effects of polyunsaturated fatty acids, PUFA, to be observed was their acceleration of the formation of lipofuscin or ceroid, the “age pigment,” during oxidative stress or vitamin E deficiency. Associated with the formation of lipofuscin, the PUFA were discovered to cause degeneration of the gonads and brain, and the fact that vitamin E could prevent some of their toxic effects led to the idea that vitamin E was essentially an antioxidant. Unfortunately, the protective effect of vitamin E against the PUFA is only partial (Allard, et al., 1997).”
“When animals are fed fish oil and then exposed to bacteria, their immunosuppressed thymic (T) cells cause them to succumb to the infection more easily than animals fed coconut oil or a fat free diet. Natural killer cells, which eliminate cancer cells and virus infected cells, are decreased after eating fish oil, and T suppressor cells are often increased. More subtle interference with immunity is produced by the actions of PUFA on the “immune synapse,” a contact between cells that permits the transmission of immunological information. The immunosuppressive effect of fish oil is recognized as a useful aid in preventing the rejection of transplanted organs, but some studies are showing that survival a year after transplantation isn’t improved.”
The statements that Ray makes (above) about fish oil suppressing the immune system, are backed by studies here and here and here….also check this one out.
So, is Fish Oil really any better than vegetable oil? I don’t think so. Personally, I think that we’re all better off, getting the small amount of omega-3 fatty acids that we MIGHT ACTUALLY NEED (which is completely debatable), by eating grass-fed beef. Sure, the non-fatty fish might be a great source of protein, but I just don’t see a benefit to supplementing with fish oil, or going out of our way to eat lots of oily fish. Just eat real food, and increase your saturated fat intake using some lovely, stable, coconut oil!
This is a pretty controversial topic! What do you think? Are we better off NOT taking fish oil? Please leave your comments and observations below in the comments section. And if you found this article interesting, please share on Facebook and Twitter. Join the Paleo Diet News discussion!
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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
For more information please visit: www.undergroundnutritionist.com