By Mike Roussell, PhD, SHAPE diet doctor
We got the diet doctor to answer all of our questions about the benefits of consuming fish oil supplements vs. fresh fish and whether or not there's really a difference (and why it's not the same with flaxseed oil).
The health benefits of taking fish oil supplements are the same as what you get from eating essential fatty acids in fish. According to a 2007 study conducted by world renown omega-3 expert Dr. Bill Harris, your body absorbs the two healthy fats (EPA and DHA ) found in fatty fish and in fish oil supplements in a similar fashion, regardless of how you get them (eating vs. supplementation). This is great news for people who dislike fish or don't eat a lot of fatty fish.
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Flaxseed, on the other hand, is a different story. The omega-3 fat found in flaxseed, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is known as a short-chain omega-3 fat, while other omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA (I won't bore you with their scientific names) are long-chain omega-3 fats. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish like salmon and in fish oil supplements. While it is possible to convert ALA into EPA, this conversion in the body is very inefficient and ridden with roadblocks. And according to new research, it is essentially impossible to convert ALA to the even longer DHA molecule.
So, what does this mean for you? Basically, you should aim to get both short- (ALA) and long-chain (EPA and DHA) omega-3 fats into your diet, as they all have unique health benefits. But no matter how much ALA you pack in, it won't make up for not getting enough (or any) EPA or DHA. This has been a common dilemma for vegetarians, who often supplement their diets with flaxseed oil to make up for the lack of long-chain omega-3 fats in their diet. Since we know this isn't an effective option, what's a vegetarian to do?
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I recommend that vegetarians find an algae-based DHA supplement. Ironically, the oil in fish oil supplements isn't made by fish. It's made by algae. The fish eat the algae, the omega-3s get stored in the fish, and then we eat the fish. If you're a vegetarian, simply look for vegetarian DHA supplements. Your body will convert some of that DHA back down to the slightly shorter EPA, and you'll have all of your long-chain omega-3 bases covered.