Omega-3 fats are awesome, right?
Well, yes and no. We are hesitant to say they are awesome, but…
To make a long story short, yes omega-3 oils are mostly good for you. (To promote them as better than saturated fat is not so correct… More on that later.) Anyway, feel free to eat as much omega-3 (or well formulated fish oil) as you’d like. You will unlikely take too much based on the common supplement dosages. These are the one kind of polyunsaturated fats we can get behind. Anywhere else we talk about the harms of polyunsaturated fat, it is mostly not relevant for omega-3 fat or fish oil.
→ Omega-6 (mainly from vegetable & cooking oils) are bad. Eat less of this.
→ Omega-3 (mainly from fish & fish oils) are good. Eat more of this.
That’s pretty much it. If you gain nothing else from this article, then you are already better off than most people in America by knowing the above facts. But if you would like to dive deeper into the issue, we provide all our reasons and resources for why this is true.
We want to keep the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (a.k.a. n-6 / n-3 ratio) as low as possible with a target of about 1 to 1. The higher this ratio is, the further you are driving the pathways for inflammation and cardiovascular disease – the lower the ratio, the more we suppress these harmful effects. A 1 to 1 ratio means we should eat the same amount of omega-3 fats as we do omega-6. (We talk a little bit more about this topic in our other article on the Harm of PUFA, so this is just a quick anecdote.)
Unfortunately, most people don’t even know how much omega-6 fats they are getting in their diet. It is in nearly everything. All vegetable or cooking oils contain a very high amount of these omega-6 fats. So that means anytime you go out to get food (even if it is keto friendly), it is nearly guaranteed the food was cooked in omega-6 fat.
You are eating much more of this kind of oil than you think. In the Western world, people mainly eat 15-17 times as much omega-6 fat as they do omega-3! That is astonishing, and that is certainly not a ratio of 1 to 1. So, do not be concerned that you might consume too much omega-3 and too little omega-6. You won’t. We promise.
Why We Like Omega-3
The main omega-3 fatty acids we are talking about are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). They are very long and very unsaturated fats – i.e. tons of double bonds. These make up a majority of the composition of fats found in supplements and in the fish themselves. Usually it is these specific fatty acids people are talking about when mentioning the benefits of omega-3 oils.
We came to appreciate omega-3 after review of the scientific literature, not before. To be honest, we actually started this journey being skeptical of omega-3 after learning the truth about vegetable and cooking oils. It’s been a giant roller coaster of events. When we were younger, we went with the status quo that fish oil was good. Then we became skeptical of omega-3’s power as we delved into the science more about polyunsaturated fats as a whole. Then we circled back around to find that these types of polyunsaturated fats are, indeed, mostly good. What a ride..
First and foremost, they are anti-inflammatory. They help with the pathways of certain inappropriately activated immune responses present during chronic inflammation. There are many mechanisms of action here, but mainly these omega-3 fats eventually become part of your cell membranes. Then these omega-3 phospholipids help with membrane fluidity and signaling pathways. Check out the simplified diagram below.
(We believe that much of the problems in today’s diseases come from inflammation. People constantly harm their bodies with bad food, and then repair mechanisms come in to try to help, but they cause more problems. We have evidence that is why cholesterol is associated with heart disease: it’s an inflammatory disease and cholesterol comes to try to help. Check out our page on this topic.)
This leads well into the next topic about cardiovascular risks since we view heart disease as an inflammatory condition.
As we stated above, we think the major way omega-3 may help heart disease is through its anti-inflammatory effects. And it turns out, we are not the only ones who see this possibility! It is widely accepted that omega-3 fats are either good for (or at least not bad for) your heart. Researchers agree that one of the reasons for it is its anti-inflammatory properties.
This topic is pretty hard because there is evidence against the use of omega-3 for heart conditions. Yes, it is widely accepted, but that does not mean unanimously accepted. Many researchers have found no effect on cardiovascular outcomes with omega-3 fats. In fact, in some of the studies these individual articles looked at, there were negative affects mixed in with the positive effects.
In the last section, we go over why omega-3 might not be the best kind of fat. Although it has anti-inflammatory effects, it is still a very unstable molecule. Anyway, if there is any benefit on cardiovascular function, it is likely from anti-inflammation.
You have probably heard about how important omega-3 fats are for brain development and health. It is true. It is mainly DHA omega-3 that makes up the brain fats, and it is this acid that shows promise for normal development and function. It is especially important for developing babies and pregnant / breastfeeding mothers to be getting plenty of these fats.
The brain needs DHA to function, but does eating omega-3 fats have any effect on this? Yes, it does. Eating or supplementing DHA results in more DHA composition of tissues and cell compartments. So we see a lot of benefit from taking fish oil from this perspective.
It is so commonplace for people to talk about the neurological benefits of omega-3 fats, so we do not want to go into too much detail. The evidence is there, and we have no complaints against it.
Why Everyone Else Loves Omega-3
We agree with most people that omega-3 is good, but they think it is good for other reasons. Reasons we don’t agree with. And we certainly don’t agree with the notion that fish oil and omega-3s are the best fats for us, like so many people do.
It’s a polyunsaturated fat. That’s pretty much it – the main reason people love it. It’s in “direct opposition” to saturated fat. They know the benefits associated with omega-3, like better inflammatory responses and brain development, but people usually associate that with its polyunsaturated nature.
While that may be true, simply being polyunsaturated is not the reason it is good. (In fact, that’s the reason we argue it may be bad..) Anyway people usually see it this way. It’s liquid. The molecules don’t “stack” as well like saturated fats of solid butter do. People take that as the reason it doesn’t clog your arteries.
We have heard countless times that saturated fat is bad because it’s solid and will clog your arteries. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of biology here. Saturated fat breaks down and does different things in the body. It doesn’t just stay butter and make its way to the arteries to block blood flow.
Also, people see that it lowers cholesterol in high enough doses (in the absence of saturated fat). Thus, they jump on board with the idea of the all magnificent wonders of omega-3 fats. That is all fine and dandy if cholesterol were the problem. But it’s not. Find out why in our other article.
Hesitation to Say It’s Awesome..
While omega-3s play very important roles in the body, we cannot say they are the best kind of fats out there. After all, they are still unstable and reactive polyunsaturated fats. They have so many double bonds. DHA and EPA, the main fats in fish oils, have 5 and 6 double bonds, respectively. That’s huge! They can definitely still oxidize easily in heating (cooking) environments or in the body from oxidative stress.
As we claimed above, having more DHA in your diet will lead to more DHA nearly everywhere in your body. That’s good up to a point for things like your brain or inflammatory response mechanisms, but what about having too high of a degree of unsaturation? That means having tons of double bonds as part of the phospholipid membranes. We agree that will happen right? The dietary fat correlates to the type of fat in your membranes.
It turns out having a higher degree of unsaturation is directly linked to decreased longevity. That means the more double bonds in your membranes, the shorter lifespan you will have. One of the major reasons for this is what were talking about above: the unstable nature of polyunsaturated fats. They are easily oxidized into nasty “lipid peroxidation products” in the body. They interfere with things like proteins and DNA. Yet another reason to promote the consumption of saturated fats.
Lastly, we want to bring back the point that there are conflicting findings on the studies of the benefits of omega-3 fats on cardiovascular risk. There isn’t super clear data that these fats even benefit our heart at all. We would even extend that skepticism to other aspects of this fat. We believe this strictly because it is an unstable polyunsaturated fat. It has benefits, yes, but it also has drawbacks due to its instability. Learn more about the general problems of polyunsaturated fat and vegetable oils by clicking here.
While omega-3 oils are much better than omega-6, and you should strive to consume equal amounts of each for a ratio of 1 to 1, we believe they are still not as awesome as most people preach. We recognize omega-3’s roles in the body, but we also recognize its potential harm. Yes, still take your fish oil supplements if you’d like, but do not rely on these fats alone to keep you healthy.
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