Healthy Q & A: Omega 3 Fish Oil vs. Flax Oil

Q: From what I’ve read, fish and flax both have omega 3’s.  I guess I’m wondering which is better to take.  It’s kind of a confusing subject.  Thanks!

A: Omega 3 fatty acids are important for so many aspects of health, from brain function to heart health and lowering cholesterol to joint health and reducing inflammation in the body, along with many others.  Due to their many benefits, it’s important to note that they cannot be synthesized by the body, and must be either added through the diet- by fatty fish and flaxseed- or by supplements.

Flax oil and fish oil are the two main forms of omega 3 fatty acids, though as you mentioned, there is much confusion about the differences between the two.  Flax is the obvious form for vegetarians, but other than that there are benefits to both forms.

One thing which makes fish oil more attractive is that it’s more concentrated than flax oil. The recommended dose (approximately, depending on the concentration) for fish oil is one to three softgels a day, as opposed to flax oil, which has a recommended dose of one to two tablespoons per day (one tablespoon per 100lbs of body weight).   If a person prefers to only take one or two pills a day, fish oil is the obvious choice, and of course it’s important to look for a fish oil that is high in omega 3 fatty acids, since they can vary widely when comparing different products.  

The forms of omega 3s found in fish and flax oil are slightly different.   Fish oil’s omega 3s are in the form of EPA and DHA (the DHA form of omega 3 is especially important for brain function), where flax oil is in the form of ALA (alpha linolenic acid).  ALA needs to be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, and age, sex, and other factors can interfere with our body’s ability to efficiently convert ALA to EPA and DHA.   

ALA is the plant form of omega-3, and the reason fish oil already contains EPA and DHA is because the fish who have eaten green plants have already converted the ALA into EPA and DHA.   If you are especially concerned about enhancing brain function, fish oil might be a better choice than flax (since the DHA is ready to be absorbed instead of having to be converted).

One benefit of flax oil over fish oil is that flax oil is cold pressed, unfiltered, and unprocessed where fish oil is processed to make sure it’s free of contaminants like lead and mercury.  Another advantage of flax oil is its use for preventing cancer.  Flax oil contains lignans (plant compounds that work as antioxidants) which have been shown to help prevent cancer and benefit cancer patients.  Flax oil is also frequently taken by body builders to help build muscle (interestingly, Hilary Swank drank huge amounts of flax oil a day to help gain 20 lbs of muscle quickly for the movie Million Dollar Baby).

All in all, flax and fish oil are both great forms of omega-3 fatty acids that each have their own benefits. Stop by the store and we’ll be happy to give you more information and find the supplement that’s right for you.