Fat has unfortunately become a dirty word in our society today. We are constantly inundated with reasons to avoid fat at all costs. Between commercials pushing the new fad diet and advice from television doctors, it’s no wonder that many people have become confused about the role of fat in our diet.
When it comes to fat, there are good fats and bad fats. Both types have fat have unfortunately been grouped together in the same category, which is a shame. One of the best sources of healthy (good) fats is fish. Love it or hate it, fish definitely packs a punch when it comes to the amount of healthy fat it provides.
Like all good things, the benefits of fish have been extracted and made available in supplement form, known as fish oil. Fish oil is nothing new but many have failed to take advantage of it. A lot of people are not sure if fish oil is for them or if it is worth spending their money on.
If you are one of those asking yourself “should I take fish oil?”, then this article is definitely going to help you reach a decision on that question.
What is fish oil?
Fish oil is exactly what it sounds like. No fancy supplement tricks here. It is simply oil derived from the tissue of oily fish. The most common types of fish that are used to produce fish oil are sardines, anchovies, salmon, tuna and cod.
History of fish oil
The origin of fish oil dates back to the 11th century where it was used by the vikings. The primary source of fish oil was cod liver oil. Cod liver oil* and fish oil played an important part in the viking diet during the winter months when there was a shortage of daylight.
Vikings called the oil, “gold of the ocean”, due to its strength, healing and energy benefits. On a side note, that’s a bad ass name for something by a bad ass group of people.
Cod liver oil continued to be used and was praised during the 1700s as a miracle cure for Rheumatism and joint issues. Cod liver oil was officially recognized by the medical profession for its curative powers during the 19th century. Cod liver continued it’s popularity and usage during the 19th and 20th century.
Although it was typically made through a rudimentary process early on, a Norwegian named Peter Möller created a process to commercially produce cod liver oil for human consumption in 1850, which totally changed the fish oil game at that time. On a cool side note, the Möller company still produces top of the line fish oils.
Cod liver oil was also a big deal in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. I can vividly recall my grandparents and parents complaining about the taste of it. People were tougher back then and there wasn’t much concern for the taste of the actual supplements as long as they worked. Luckily today, many fish oil supplements are flavorless or masked with another flavor such as lemon.
Due to quality control issues with cod liver oil, it began to fade from popularity during the 1960s. During the 1970s, a Danish doctor named Jorn Dyerburg was studying the Inuit in Greenland. Dyerburg found that despite the Inuit consuming a high fat animal based diet consisting mostly of fish, they had a low incidence of heart attacks and heart disease. This was believed to be due to the Omega 3 levels found in fish. Dyerburg’s research led to the modern day fish oil supplements available today.
* A quick note on cod liver oil. Although cod liver oil is technically a fish oil, it is placed in it’s own category due to the fact that it contains Vitamin A and D. High levels of Vitamin A and D can cause toxicity issues in some. Fish oil itself does not contain Vitamin A and D and is therefore more suitable for usage for most. For that reason, fish oil and cod liver oil are sold as separate supplements.
Research on fish oil shows that there are 5 big reasons you should be taking it.
The primary reason that fish oil is recommended and consumed is for the Omega-3 fatty acids it contains. Omega-3s are an essential fat however, the body cannot make them on it’s own like it can with many other nutrients. Omega-3s must be supplied to the body through food or supplements. Fish typically contain the highest levels of Omega-3s compared to other foods, which is why this glorious oil is extracted from it.
Fish oil contains the Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are two of three types of Omega 3’s your body needs.
Omega 3’s are a powerhouse when it comes to heart health. I discussed them previously in my grass fed whey protein article here. Omega 3’s are important for blood clotting, reducing inflammation and relaxing the walls of the arteries. They can also lower triglyceride levels amongst other benefits.
After its Omega-3 content, arthritis and joint issues are typically the second biggest reason people take fish oil. According to the Arthritis Foundation, a 2010 study found that fish oil largely reduced joint tenderness and stiffness in Rheumatoid Arthritis patients.
Fish oil has been found to possess anti-inflammation properties, which make it a huge ally when it comes to fighting join pain and arthritis. One 2006 study found that fish oil was as effective in reducing arthritic pain as ibuprofen was. That’s huge! Not only does fish oil provide other health benefits in addition to join pain and arthritis relief but it also does not have the nasty side effects that many experience from long term use of ibuprofen.
While I am concerned about heart health as well, my primary reason for taking fish oil is for the benefits it provides to my joints. My joints have taken a beating after years of wrestling and football. They continue to take a beating from heavy weight lifting and now Brazilian jiu jitsu. I had three knee surgeries due to the beating my body has taken. While I do not have arthritis, I have experienced a great deal of joint stiffness and cracking. When I am consistently taking fish oil, my joints feel so much better. The cracking is greatly reduced and I feel like my joints are far less stiff than they are usually.
A study conducted by Ohio State University found that fish oil lowered anxiety and inflammation in students. Some professionals believe that anxiety is a side effect of inflammation in the body, which would explain why fish oil could have a positive effect in reducing anxiety levels.
Fish oil has also been found to normalize the dopamine levels in the body. Low dopamine levels have been linked to anxiety and depression.
I definitely notice a decrease in my general anxiety levels when I am taking fish oil.
# 4- Cancer prevention
Fish oil has been found to prevent or fight certain types of cancer. Fish oil has also been found to inhibit cancer cell growth and tumor growth.
Specifically, it has been found to assist in preventing prostate cancer and decrease mortality in those that already have prostate cancer.
Fish oils cancer prevention properties is again largely related to its ability to reduce inflammation in the body. Cancer has been linked to chronic inflammation. Knowing that, it only makes sense that fish oil can have a positive impact on cancer prevention!
There are so many foods we eat today that cause inflammation in the body. From fast food, to sugar laced desserts and processed meats, most of the food we eat are too high in the inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids and too low in Omega-3 fatty acids. We should be doing whatever we can to reduce that inflammation and fish oil is an excellent and easy way to do that.
#5- Heart disease.
In addition to the four great benefits I just discussed, fish oil has been found to reduce high triglyceride levels in people. As I discussed above, the Inuit (Eskimos) were found to have a very low rate of heart attacks and heart disease despite consuming a high fat diet.
Aside from reducing high triglyceride levels, fish oil also been found to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, which all contribute to heart health.
Taking all of those benefits into consideration, I feel quite confident that taking fish oil regularly will contribute positively to my heart health.
What to look for in a quality fish oil supplement
Finding a high quality fish oil can be tricky. Not all fish oil is created equal by any means. Taking the wrong fish oil can actually cause health problems as opposed to relieving them.
The problem often lies in the source of fish used to make the oil. Many fish contain high levels of the heavy metal mercury and other toxins in their body and tissues. Mercury is very problematic for humans and can cause a ton of issues within your body so you want to avoid it whenever possible. Bigger fish such as tuna, will have higher levels of mercury compared to smaller fish such as anchovies.
With that in mind, make sure that the fish oil you buy discloses what type of fish it is sourced from. You want the oil to come from a small fish such as anchovies and sardines. Look for a company that has their oil tested by a third party to confirm that the oil is free of heavy metals and toxins.
If a company does not openly disclose the type of fish that the oil is derived from, be very suspicious and steer clear of it unless you can get a straight answer. If you need to reach out to the company then do so however, you do not need to go through all that trouble to find a quality fish oil. There are more than enough available that are transparent about their ingredients and fish source.
Aside from the type of fish, you always want to ensure that the fish is wild caught and not farmed. Farmed fish are dangerous to your health and contain dangerous toxins. You want the oil from healthy fish swimming in the ocean as nature intended.
A final thing to look for is the way in which the fish oil is packaged. As it is an oil, you do not want it to become oxidized. Oxidation occurs when an unsaturated oil is exposed to heat, light or oxygen. If fish oil becomes oxidized, then it essentially goes bad and becomes unhealthy for you. Make sure the company specifically discusses the steps it takes to prevent oxidation. I would advise getting fish oil in a gel cap as opposed to liquid, as its potential exposure to oxygen and other elements will be very limited.
Whatever you do, DO NOT run out and buy a generic fish oil off of the shelf of your local grocery store unless it’s a store like whole foods, which carries quality supplements. Many generic fish oils sold are total garbage. They do not contain adequate levels of Omega-3s and are made from low quality and toxic fish. You are better off not taking a fish oil at all than taking a garbage one to save a few dollars.
Most health organizations and professional recommend 500 milligrams daily of the Omega 3’s EPA and DHA so look for a fish oil that covers or exceeds that amount if you do not intake enough through your diet.
All in all
I love fish oil. I have taken it for several years now and have zero plans to stop. I feel that current and past research more than proves it’s worth and potential benefits to our health. There has been studies done in recent years questioning the benefits of fish oil but like anything else, I typically go with consumer reviews when research becomes cloudy. One look at the reviews of a high quality fish oil and you will be sold on its effectiveness. Trust me.
The biggest benefits I have noticed from taking fish oil is a reduction in joint pain and stiffness as well as huge improvements in my mood. There have been times when I have stopped taking fish oil for various reasons (usually laziness) and I definitely notice a difference.
I feel less stressed and overall happier when I am taking it regularly. I have particularly noticed it’s benefits during the cold winter months when the sunlight is scarce here in New England.
Questions or comments regarding your experience with fish oil? I would love to hear below!