There’s no question that the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids have been in the news frequently for the last couple of years. One big question that pops up is the question of where to get those Omega-3s; fish oil or flax seed?
For one thing, there’s no rule that says you can’t use both. Scandalous thought, I know, but if they’re both so healthy for you why not just use both and be done with it? That’s a great idea, especially since flax seeds give some benefits that fish oil cannot, but they have nothing to do with the actual Omega-3 content. What about that, anyway? Is there a difference between the Omega-3s you find in flax, vs the Omega-3 you find in a nice plate of salmon?
Well, if you’re getting your fish oil from a nice grilled slab of formerly swimming ocean creature, instead of a bottle, you’ve got a leg up because you’re also getting a ton of very complete protein to accompany your oil intake, and if you’re training hard, you need plenty of that.
Let’s look at taking fish oil as a supplement, vs sprinkling some golden flax seed meal in your yogurt and oatmeal every morning (which I do, and have for about 3 years now. Thank those product demonstrators at Costco). Is there a difference if you examine those routes to getting the Omega-3s your body needs to operate at peak health? As an added bonus, research has proven that Omega-3 fatty acids actually help your body burn fat more effectively, but is that true for all Omega-3s, or just some of them? Let’s take a quick look…..
All Omega-3s are NOT the Same
First of all, you should know that all Omega-3s are not created equal. For our purposes, there are 3 different Omega-3s that are present in either fish oil or flax seed, in varying quantities. These are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Now if you snoozed through chem class, the mere sight of such scientific looking words might frighten you, but fear not. That’s why we use the 3 letter abbreviations.
ALA is the one found primarily in flax seeds, while fish oil contains mostly EPA (not the government agency) and DHA (not to be confused with DEA, another government agency). ALA is a short chain fatty acid, while the other two are long chain acids. That refers to the length of the carbon atom chain that makes up their respective fat molecules. The long chain acids have more carbon atoms. Their carbon atom score, in case you’re counting ALA – 18, EPA – 20, DHA – 22. I don’t really know how all this affects your carbon footprint, either, so forget about it.
ALA is broken down by the body into both EPA and DHA, so you might conclude that it would be better to take it, since that would be an easy way to get both of the others at one time. However, your body is notoriously inefficient in this process. Furthermore, just taking flax seed for the ALA does not cause an equal rise in your body’s levels of EPA and DHA. It makes a nice increase in EPA levels, but leaves DHA levels relatively flat. That’s too bad, because DHA is the one that most of the fat loss research has been centered upon.
What The Eggheads Say
In 2007, a study by Alison M Hill, Jonathan D Buckley, Karen J Murphy and Peter RC Howe at the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre and the Australian Technology Network Centre for Metabolic Fitness, University of South Australia revealed some interesting findings.
They found that combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors vs. simply doing the exercise by itself. The increase was quite significant, and this study and one other were almost enough to create an oil supplement industry all by themselves, once the marketing types caught on to them. The other study to which I’m referring was conducted about the same time on the other side of the world, this one being up in Iceland.
The Aussie study found that “FO supplementation lowered triacylglycerols, increased HDL cholesterol, and improved endothelium-dependent arterial vasodilation “. About that endothelium-dependent arterial vasodilation stuff; whatever, but it sure sounds impressive, doesn’t it? In any case, there are definitely overall health benefits associated with the fish oil. The study also discovered that “Evidence also suggests that n–3 FAs may have a favorable effect on metabolism “, which for the purposes of fat loss is quite important. This study was very carefully controlled, and used the latest in body composition measurement. Many studies have failed to do one or the other.
The study used dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (that’s the good stuff) to assess changes in fat and lean mass in the test subjects. All their diets were energy adjusted so that the effects of the oil supplementation vs. a placebo could be isolated. One interesting thing about fat metabolization noted by the researchers was actually from another study. In a 2006 study by Davidson et al, results showed that “n–3 FAs (fatty acids) can effectively mediate a shift in fuel metabolism away from storage and toward oxidation “.
Other Cool Studies on Fat Loss With Fish Oil
What about the other study I referenced at the top of the section? It was done primarily at the Unit for Nutrition Research, Landspitali-University Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland. That 2007 study was very interesting (for those of us who like that kind of stuff).
It looked at the effects of no oil vs. fish oil from a cod diet, a salmon diet, and fish oil DHA/EPA capsules, alone without the fish itself. As a control, the researchers used sunflower oil, just in case the results were due to oil supplementation in general. The study encompassed 324 European test subjects from 20 – 40 years of age. The group diet’s macronutrient composition was controlled to ensure any differences noted were from the experiment itself.
The results? According to the study’s authors “In young, overweight men, the inclusion of either lean or fatty fish, or fish oil as part of a hypoenergetic diet resulted in 1 kilogram more weight loss after 4 weeks than a similar diet without seafood or supplement of marine origin. The addition of seafood to a nutritionally balanced energy-restricted diet may boost weight loss.” Note the “may” here, just in case.
They also noted a decrease in blood triglycerides, although they found is was not significant after adjusting for weight loss. Also, note that the test subjects were on energy restricted diets for this study. They did not just magically lose weight due to inclusion of fish oil and fish oil containing foods.
DHA Does It
Both the two studies and some others have found that it is mostly DHA that is responsible for the bulk of the fat loss noted. Remember that that is the one that is not increased by taking ALA, the Omega-3 found in flax seed or it’s extract.
This Kills Your Body’s Conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA
Just a quick note, in case you get most of your Omega-3s from plant sources, such as flax seeds. Something that can severely hamper you body in converting short chain ALA into long chain DHA and EPA is getting too much Omega-6 acids vs Omega-3s. This is relatively easy to do, since most diets contain far more Omega-6 fatty acids in proportion to the Omega-3 variety. Take a look at your diet to see if it is happening to you.
What Flax Seed Can Provide That Slimy Creatures Can’t
There has to be some things that flax seed can do that fish oil can’t, even if the actual Omega-3s found in the flax may not be as beneficial to your fat burning efforts as those found in fish and fish oil, right?
Well, some have believed so heavily in flax seed benefits that they passed laws mandating people consume it. What kind of government would actually pass laws dictating what people eat? Oh, wait, various local, state and the federal governments do that in the U.S. all the time now, and this movement shows signs of doing nothing but growing. The laws about flax I’m referencing were actually passed by King Charlemagne about 1,300 years ago, but maybe that was only a start. If only he’d had McDonalds to kick around back then……..
Anyway, just what can flax do for you? Flax seed meal contains Lignans at quantities at least 75 times higher than any other readily available plant source. Lignans are phytoestrogens that have strong anti-oxidant properties. Anti-oxidants have been proven to fight cellular damage, and have numerous health benefits.
Linigans are thought to have benefits in reducing the incidence of BPH in men. BPH is a non cancerous prostate condition that affects many men over the age of 50. In women, studies have shown that diets rich in these compounds are a significant factor in breast cancer risk reduction. How do they work? Linigans may reduce breast cancer risk by binding to estrogen receptors in place of actual estrogen.
Flax seed meal also contains plenty of dietary fiber and are rich in protein.
Meal Only, Please
There are plenty of foods out there that contain flax seeds, but if they are in full form the seeds will not give most of the benefits that you’ll get from the flax seed meal. The seeds outer shell prevent the release of much of the goodness, so eat the ground, please.
Not So Fast
One more thing. All the research that shows accelerated fat burning with fish oil supplementation may have you convinced that you can add some fish oil to your diet and watch the pounds melt away, literally.
Don’t you believe it. While the results are significant, and there are definitely other health benefits o be had, you can’t expect miracles, although you probably want to. In most studies the fat loss is, indeed significant from the fish oil, but it still isn’t a very big decrease. You need to use fish oil as a supplement to your already good diet, not as a magical fix for a bad one. That just won’t work, except as a way to boost the supplement maker’s bottom lines.