Fish Oil: You're Using It Wrong

Fish Oil Is Awesome. But Are You Using It Correctly?

Fish oil burns fat and curbs inflammation if used correctly. The problem? Many people are screwing it up. Here’s how to use it to get real results.

Do It Right and You’re Indestructible

When used properly, fish oil can make your cardiovascular system damn near indestructible, tamp down virtually all inflammation, improve your insulin sensitivity, and turn you into a lean, fat-burning machine.

Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t doing it right and they’re not experiencing those great things. They take the capsules but they usually don’t feel any different. The problem is that they don’t have a fundamental understanding of how fish oils, or more precisely, omega-3 fatty acids, work. This lack of universal effects has forced some doctors to second-guess the benefits of fish oil. But they, along with many of the people taking fish oil or other omega-3 fatty acid supplements, have overlooked a couple of crucial points.

Good Business Messed Up Our Chemistry

In order to understand how you’re/they’re messing up, we need to look at the fascinating story of how we got to the point of needing to take fish oil capsules in the first place. It comes down to one seemingly disparate fact: Leaves rot quickly but seeds don’t.

If you’re a food manufacturer, you want to make foods out of plant matter that lasts a long time. Spoilage of greens means less green in your pocket, so plant breeders deliberately seek out plants, or parts of plants, that have a low spoilage rate and that last a long time. That means seeds and grains.

The reason leaves spoil so quickly is that they contain a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, while the long-lasting seeds and grains contain a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, which serve as an energy store for developing seedlings. Omega-6s are much more chemically stable, so it’s no random happenstance that between 60 and 90% of the world’s foodstuff comes from seeds and grains.

Pretty much every food item that comes in a box or wrapper is sourced from one of the three or four big grains. Salad dressings, cooking oils, peanut butter, snacks of any kind, and anything wrapped in plastic and decorated with some anthropomorphic dancing bear is full of omega-6s.

Grain is so cheap and plentiful (farmers even get paid extra by the government to not grow certain types) that we feed it to every animal we’re interested in eating. Cattle normally eat grass throughout their lives, but we force-feed them grains to fatten them up. Not only does it make them sick, necessitating the use of antibiotics, but it changes their fatty-acid profile so that they turn into four-legged, cud-chewing omega-6 bombs.

Even the fish we used to covet for their omega-3 fatty acids are raised on pellets made largely from soy, making them not much better nutritionally than some Frankenfood plastic-wrapped cheese-like product found in a refrigerated bin in the grocery store. Chickens aren’t safe from these fatty-acid atrocities, either, as they too are fed grain-sourced pellets instead of the balanced diet of seeds and omega-3 rich grubs and insects they’re supposed to eat. And of course this fatty practice trickles down into our dairy products and eggs.

No longer do any of these food items contain appreciable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. It’s even estimated that 9% of the calories in the American diet come from one solitary omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid, most of it from soybean oil. It’s a pellet based, Soylent-Green world, but hey, it’s good business!

This is Likely What Killed Your Grandpa

As a result of all this good business, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in these animals is way out of whack. It’s something on the order of 10, 20, or even 25 to 1, when it should be about 3 to 1. And, of course, we are what we eat, so our ratio is no different than that of the animal foods we eat.

Neither can you discount the “fat equals heart attack” theory that came to light in the '70s. People began avoiding saturated fats from animals and switched to seed oils. The trouble was, back then at least, animal fats contained respectable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and seed oils didn’t. Likewise, people transitioned from butter to margarine, which had the double whammy of a high concentration of omega-6s and a high concentration of trans fatty acids, which are an entirely different breed of dietary demon. If your father or grandfather died prematurely from heart disease or stroke, this probably had something to do with it.

Hundred of the Greatest Plagues of Mankind

Omega-6 fatty acids are the building blocks for a class of pro-inflammatory chemicals that coax red blood cells into forming clots, but it’s the pro-inflammatory modifier that should concern you. Inflammation is insidiously and intimately connected with at least 100 of the greatest plagues of mankind, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and any rotten autoimmune disorder known to science. But inflammation also plays a big part in obesity as it can further insulin resistance.

Researcher Joseph Hibben believes that the billions we spend on anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen) are the direct effect of having too much omega-6 in the diet. Omega-3s, on the other hand, slow the clotting process and they check the pro-inflammatory chemicals associated with omega-6s. Furthermore, they make the cells more insulin sensitive by increasing cell membrane permeability, which both increases the metabolism and protects against obesity as well.

Clearly, it would behoove the human race if we could keep the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids at approximately 3 to 1, the way that nature intended. That’s why most well meaning people take fish oil capsules (remember, fish in the wild eat algae, a plant material, that contains a lot of omega-3s).

Omega-6s Drive Omega-3s Away

But there’s a simple part of the puzzle that people are missing and it’s this: Omega-6s and Omega-3s appear to compete with each other for space in the cell membrane and consequently, for the attention of various pro- or anti-inflammatory enzymes.

You can’t just take a few fish oil capsules and expect everything to click into place like a fatty-acid Rubik’s cube without simultaneously reducing your omega-6 intake because the existing omega-6s will bully the omega-3s away. Each time someone tries to attack the omega-6 fatty acid bulwark, it’s like the 300 Spartans trying to take on the entire Persian army, and we all know how that turned out.

Four Ways to Fix the Problem

  1. Definitely augment your omega-3 intake with a high-quality fish oil. Flameout (on Amazon) is the top choice. But you need to simultaneously reduce your intake of omega-6s. You can do this by:
  • Avoiding most foods that come in a box or polyethylene bags as they include foods generally made from grains chosen for their long shelf life (i.e., high concentration of omega 6’s).
  • Avoiding cooking oils like sunflower, soy, corn, safflower, and cottonseed and instead use olive oil or high-oleic versions of safflower or sunflower oil.
  • Avoiding consumption of restaurant-fried food, as they’re almost always fried in high-omega-6 cooking oils. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet most restaurant dishes are messed up.
  • Choose grass-fed and grass-finished beef. All cattle are initially grass fed before being fattened up with grains, so make sure the meat you buy is from grass-finished livestock.
  1. Remember that the ratio of the two fatty acids is more important than the quantity. If you eat more omega-6s, eat more omega-3s.
  2. Switch to eating green plants whenever possible instead of foods derived from seeds.
  3. Tell your doctor to go ahead and do his little cholesterol test if it makes him happy, but that you also want a blood test to determine your omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio to determine your real risk of heart disease.

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