Fish Oil v. Flax Oil: Omegas Demystified

For a long time I was more familiar with the hype than the facts. Omega 3s are everywhere; milk is fortified with them, hens are fed them (to produce Omega-rich eggs), and 922 books tell us to eat more of them. But why? And why are the 3s getting all the attention and not the 6s or 9s?

Here’s everything I didn’t know then, and all you need to know now …

  • Omegas are fats that the body uses to make hormone-like chemicals that regulate pretty much everything in the body.
  • An Omega is either a 3, 6 or 9
  • Omega 3’s are further divided into LNA (alpha linolenic acid*), EPA and DHA; the “parent” Omega 6 is linoleic acid (LA); there are two Omega 9’s.
  • But don’t worry about the 9’s – your body makes them on its own and has this under control. Omega 3 and 6 though, it doesn’t; you need to get them from food, which is why these two are called “essential”.
  • Foods high in Omega 3 are fatty fish (eg.salmon, sardines, tuna), flax seeds, walnuts; Omega 6 is found in corn and soybean oil and meat from grain-fed animals. (Grass-fed meat is also a pretty good source of Omega 3, but be sure it’s truly grass-fed (if you’re not sure if it is – it’s not), otherwise you’re getting a heavy dose of 6 and trace amounts of 3.)
  • For optimal health we need all three Omegas in balance in our body.
  • Problem is, most people are highly deficient in Omega 3 (hence the hype around the 3’s). This is because we eat too little seafood, flax seeds, walnuts…and too much corn oil and meat from corn-fed animals.  We do want more 6’s than 3’s in our body, but the ideal ratio of Omega 6 to 3 is 2:1, not 10: 1  (or higher) which is what the typical Western diet provides.
  • The benefits of getting Omega 3 levels in balance are many: enhanced brain functioning (our brain is 60% fat, and half of that is DHA – an Omega 3), improved blood circulation, strengthened immunity, lower incidence of inflammation and healthier eyes.

So fish oil and flax oil get all the attention because they have far more Omega 3 than any other food, but if you had to choose one? Fish oil. Flax seed oil has the highest of any plant based food, but contains only the Omega 3 LNA, which the body has to convert to EPA and DHA (the more valuable of the the 3’s) . Where fish excels is that the EPA and DHA is in pure form and does not have to undergo conversion. But LNA is needed by the body, so don’t not consume flax oil (squirt it into yogurt, smoothies or homemade salad dressing).  Oh, and be sure to consume flax in oil or ground-up-seed form (the whole seeds pass right through you).

If you don’t want to have to remember any of what you just read, then simply take fish-oil capsules – ideally daily but “whenever you remember to” is a good start.  My personal favorite is New Chapter (high quality ingredients and excellent customer service – super responsive to email questions.)   I take 2 capsules (2 grams) daily (which is the rough equivalent of eating 4 oz of salmon/day). The New Chapter brand has zero fishy after-taste, an unpleasant side-effect of many brands, that I’m sure was the reason I used to “forget” to take my capsules. If you’re a vegetarian or can’t stand fish, try an algae-based Omega 3 supplement (many on the market now), or flax oil capsules.

(Update: Several people emailed me asking about cod liver oil. Yes! Is my answer.  Here’s what it’s high in: 1) EPA and DHA – just like other oily fish oils, 2) Cholesterol. This is not a bad thing as our bodies need cholesterol and eating it will not raise your levels as your body will compensate by making less of its own. 3) Vitamin D. Vit D and cholesterol work together. Vit D is made from cholesterol in our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Few foods contain Vit D and cod liver is one of the best sources. 4) Vitamin A. This is Vitamin A at its finest – in its pure state.)

Your take on Omegas?

*LNA is sometimes written as ALA (very confusing!), but they’re the same thing.

Related Posts
Hemp Seeds: Better For You Than Flaxseeds?

Is The Chia Craze Inflated? (Chia seeds are another Omega 3-rich food)

Berry Speckled Oatmeal (Recipe)

Photo:  Omega 3 double-header. Copyright © Michelle Madden

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  • Jillian

    I’m wondering whether tofu has any omega 3 in it? Does anyone know?

  • Sonya

    So if taking 2 capsules a day is “good”, is taking 4 a day even better?? Is there such a thing as OD’ing on omega 3s?

    • Michelle

      There is such a thing as getting too much Omega 3. The key is to keep all the Omegas in balance. Omega 3 for example thins the blood which is a good thing but too much is a bad thing. If you took 4 grams a day, there’s likely no problem but that’s about as high as I’d go unless there’s a medical necessity to go higher.

      • Chase

        (You mentioned taking two capsules a day. New Chapter fish oil capsules are available in 500 and 1000 mg units. Whenever referencing dosages, I recommend you specify capsule/tablet/unit size– the number of units of anything can be misleading without knowing the size of the units.)

        Keep up the great writing.

        • Chase

          My bad– see now that you did indeed mention 2 capsules was 2 grams (2000 mgs).

      • Michelle

        Wanted to add a follow up to several people who have emailed me asking about mercury and contaminants in fish oil. Couple things: most fish oil is from small fish(eg. anchovies & sardines) which have very little/no mercury (it’s the big fish that have the high levels of mercury). Many co’s also purify the oil to extract any contaminants. The co I love and mentioned in the post “New Chapter” uses only wild Alaskan salmon for the oil which is also very low in mercury and contaminants.

    • Michelle

      testing to see if this “reply” comes to your inbox …

  • sunny

    Nice to have the clarification.
    Trader Joe’s makes a great Salmon oil capsule and also Fish oil combination .. They are molecularly distilled which is essential to be sure that you are not getting dosed with the heavy metals in the fish.

    • Lisa

      How do the Trader Joe’s fish oil capsules fare on the “no-fish-after-taste” front? I have high respect for the TJ brand so am sure their supplements are excellent too, but just curious about your experience on this attribute…

      • Beth

        My husband and I both take OmegaBerry by Purity Products ( No aftertaste, pharmaceutical grade (this is important), and a big dose of vitamin D3 in it, too. We have a “subscription” so a fresh supply comes every few months. I think fish oil works – when I remember something that no one else can, I always say, “It’s the fish oil talking!”

        • Michelle

          Beth, when you speak of “pharmaceutical grade” what specifically are you referring to? Thanks!

          • Bethany

            Hey Michelle, I work at a company (Martek Biosciences) that manufactures a vegan source of DHA/EPA. The pharma grade refers to the percertage of omega-3 in the total oil. So the omega-3 concentration is ~85% or higher in pharma grade. This leads me to my next point. Please inform your readers to really study the nutritional facts on supplements. Take the New Chapter Wholemega for example. The serving size may be 2000mg, but the total omega-3 amount is 500mg which is only 25% of the total serving size. The amount of omega-3 you’re getting per serving is only 500mg NOT 2000mg. This amount is good because something is better than nothing. However, studies have shown you need at least 1200mg dosage of DHA to see health benefits, like with your heart. The 1200mg dosage is not exclusive to DHA, it can be translated to total omega-3 dosage. Ok my rant is over. :-) I hope this provides more insight.

          • Michelle

            Thanks Bethany and I hear what you’re saying. I tend to prefer an oil (like the pure salmon oil I take), that is in the “whole oil” form and includes the oil blend as it appears naturally in the fish itself (meaning 3, 6 AND 9 omegas). So I agree that the tablet I take is not pure Omega 3, and b/c of this I try to get lots of actual fish in my diet as well as flax and hemp (also a blend of 3 and 6s).

  • Richard

    Congratulations on your new blog.
    I am happy to finally see some information on food that is useful and very straightforward to read.
    Looking forward to more posts soon

  • kim

    Ok, that’s the best explanation I’ve heard on the omegas…and so now I have no more excuses. Keep blogging!

    • Benton

      I was just wondering about this very thing. Thanks

  • Natasha

    Be choosy with the brand of fish oil capsules you use. Oily fish can contain a lot of mercury (see tuna post). Your typical store brand may not remove enough metals, dioxins and PCBs from the oil.
    When shopping, look for the term “molecular distillation” on the packaging. A good brand sold in most drug stores is Nature Made.

  • Allie

    I have recently read the krill oil is the most beneficial omega 3. It is more easily absorbed than regular fish oil. I do not know much more, but it could be worth looking into.

    • Michelle

      I have been hearing more and more about krill as well. What’s good about it, is it’s a small crustacean so its plentiful in the ocean, and has no mercury b/c of its tiny size. Take a look on the bottle to be sure that it gives you high Omega 3s, but yes! a great choice.

  • Kyle

    Nutrasea makes a fish oil with a very slight lemon taste that my 10 year old will take, whereas all others were rejected. He actually reminds me to give it to him. We use it in a bottle, refrigerated, rather than capsule.

    • Michelle

      It’s a good point you raise about the refrigeration. If anyone has fish oil that they find has an after taste, before throwing it out and buying a new brand, try refrigerating it ..

  • Daphne

    As an optometrist, I always prescribe “2000 mg” of specifially “EPA-DHA” to my patients with a specific kind of dry eye(meibomian gland dysfunction) which gives a person tired, sometimes irritated eyes especially at the end of the day. The problem is so common now, because of our diet these days, that I’m starting to see it even in children! Thanks for spreading the word:)

  • Michelle

    Are the algae based supplements as effective? I would rather avoid fish based ones but am nervous about sacraficing quality…

    • Michelle

      The algae capsules are perfectly suitable. Some have lower levels of omega 3 than the fish oil capsules, so I would just be sure to look for ones where you’ll be able to get at least 2g of the omega3, with a “serving” of 2 capsules. If you find a brand you love, come back it share it with us!

  • betsy

    I have heard that the reason the fish oil repeats on you is that it has become rancid. Do you refrigerate your oils?
    Barleans’ has a Lemon Twist cod liver oil that tastes like lemon pie filling. They date their products are ALWAYS found in the dairy case. Also have a Strawberry Banana Swirl of flax seed oil.

    • Michelle

      Many brands for some reason just have a more fishy taste even when they’re fresh or even after refrigerating. I don’t refrigerate mine and as long as the room doesn’t get hot and the oil is not in direct sunlight, they should be fine.

      As for the flavors, its really a personal choice as to whether you choose flavored oils to disguise the natural flavor. I prefer “naked” fish and flax oil and find with flax that when its mixed with say yogurt or put in a smoothie, it’s quite good!

      If you go with flavored oils, you might want to look for flavors from pure oil essence (eg lemon oil) vs. “natural flavors” of lemon pie, strawberry etc. Even though its says “natural”, all “flavors” – if they’re labeled “flavor”- means they are a chemical derivative from the original food that’s providing the flavor.

  • Shari

    It says on my bottle to check with a dr. before taking if you are nursing. Do you have any thoughts on this? I personally can’t see why it would be harmful, especially since it’s noted as molecularly distilled. Thanks!

    • Michelle

      I think they’re just being extra cautious and wanting to alert the user to the fact that it could contain low levels of mercury. To reduce the risk, I would choose a high quality brand (my favorite is New Chapter)that purifies the oil as much as possible.

      The other option, if you’re concerned, is to switch to flaxseed oil while you’re breast feeding and go back to fish oil later.

    • Bethany

      Another option is to take to the algal based omega-3 oils. The algae doesn’t absorb the heavy metals and other contaminants like fish do. The drawback of only taking flax seed while nursing is it doesn’t contain DHA. DHA is very critical to brain development in the first year of a baby’s life.

      • Michelle

        Excellent point — the oil in flax is LNA (alpha linolenic acid) which the body converts to DHA but it’s an inefficient conversion so best to try to get some of the pure DHA if you can.

  • Lauren C.

    Great post, and great blog overall, Michelle. Thanks for all the helpful information and tips.

    One question: how valuable are flax seeds? If I put them on cereal or yogurt, etc., do they provide the same benefits as flax oil would?

    • Michelle

      The whole seeds won’t do you much good as they pass through your system undigested. So either use the oil or use ground flax seeds which your body *can* extract the oil from.

      I buy the seeds whole and grind them in my coffee grinder, which is not only cheaper than buying them pre-ground, but keeps them fresher.

      • Lauren C.

        Very interesting. Thanks!

  • Hockey Forum

    This a fabulous post and may be one that needs to be followed up to see what goes on

    A chum sent this link the other day and I am excitedly awaiting your next blog post. Carry on on the high quality work.

  • http://google Dianna

    I have been taking vitamins for years. I have been taking omega 3 6 and 9 complex for a little over a year now. I have read pros and cons on this. What is your opinion?

    • Michelle

      I take a fish oil capsule daily (100% pure salmon oil) which combines omega 3,6 and 9 (heaviest on the 3). Most people (including myself) don’t get enough Omega 3 (largely found in oily fish) and so I feel it’s helpful to take it. I am a fan of the brand New Chapter which I believe sources the purest fish possible with low levels of contaminants. Are there specific concerns you have?

  • K-mom

    I have been using a protein powder blend every morning in my smoothies, it is a blend of pea, hemp, brown rice and chia seed. Funny story! I started using this protein blend about 6 months ago (ironically, I have lost almost 25 lbs. since I started having a smoothie made with this protein powder almost every morning) I didn’t know that chia seeds swell up when they are in water. One day I didn’t have time to whip up a smoothie, as I had to head out to make it to an appointment. In a rush, I thought I would just mix the protein powder with water and chug it, and it would be better than not having breakfast. (many other commercial protein powders can be mixed with water) So, I set it down to take a quick phone call from the person I was heading out to meet, and slowly starting taking drinks of my protein powder. Suddenly, I looked into the bottom of my glass and thought that it was filled with meal worms. I literally almost vomitted. Luckily, I called my mom right away (she is a microbiologist and has spent the past 10 years researching holistic foods and supplements) and she assured me that I had not swallowed meal worms- it was the chia seeds that were swelling up from the water. I just usually couldn’t tell because I would blend the protein powder into a smoothie. It was very funny!

    But I do actually have a question in relation to this post:

    I had been using an oil supplement in my smoothies called Udo’s Oil, but it is really expensive, so I have switched to flax seed oil and also now use Cod Liver Oil. Do you think that Cod Liver Oil is fine to use? I have heard good things about it, but didn’t see it mentioned on here. I have also been slipping the cod liver oil into my kids’ organic ketchup at dinner time. Shhh! They haven’t noticed yet :)

    • Michelle

      Cod liver oil is excellent to use! I’m going to update that post and mention it … what’s cod liver oil high in: 1) EPA and DHA – just like other oily fish oils, 2) Cholesterol. This is not a bad thing as our bodies NEED cholesterol and eating it will not raise your levels as your body will compensate by making less if you consume it in food. 3) Vit D. Vit D and cholesterol work together. Vit D is made from cholesterol in our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Few foods contain Vit D and cod liver is one of the best sources. 4) Vit A. This is Vitamin A at its finest – in its pure state.

      When buying it, buy a premium brand (don’t skimp on price), as the lower priced brands are often so processed that the Vit A and D has been destroyed meaning that they ADD supplemental vitamins! This may not even be disclosed on the container, but read it carefully and go to the brand’s website to see if they use pure oil and add NO add’l vitamins. If they DON’T say that they DON’T, it’s likely they DO …