Taking on the Seven Seas 3 Month Omega-3 Index Challenge had me thinking about fish oil supplements in ways I hadn’t before, so I took the opportunity of having Helen Bond, Seven Seas consultant dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, at my disposal to ask a few questions about cod liver oil.
As someone who would love to make the transition from being mostly pescatarian (I eat fish every 3 weeks or so) to vegan, and with a sister who became vegan this year after Veganuary, I was naturally curious as to how vegans can ensure their levels of omega-3 fatty acids were healthily maintained. This blogpost also covers my concerns regarding the level of contaminants in fish, how everyday people can gauge whether they’re deficient in EPA & DHA without taking a blood test and how much fish we would need to eat if we didn’t want to take supplements.
Vegans or those on a plant-based diet don’t have the option to eat oily fish so what can they do to increase their EPA and DHA (the two main beneficial omega-3 fatty acids)?
Unfortunately, vegetarians, and particularly vegans are associated with low levels of the essential omega-3s EPA and DHA compared to fish-eating populations.
Chai seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, linseeds and their oils, and walnuts are rich in the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short chain plant form of omega-3, which the body converts into the longer chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. These are found in oil-rich fish, such as herring, sardines and mackerel and are thought to be the most beneficial to our health. While this conversion is a slow inefficient process, these nuts, seeds and their oils can be an important source of essential omega-3 fats for vegans and vegetarians, and people who don’t regularly eat oil-rich fish.
Over the past few years, commercial sources of plant marine algae oils have also been developed, offering vegetarians and vegans supplements of good plant sources of DHA.
What are general signs that you’re lacking in EPA and DHA? Is there any way of being able to get this tested as an ordinary person?
Omega-3 fats are essential to our health and wellbeing – as they cannot be made in the body, they must be obtained through dietary sources.
Although not limited to an omega-3 deficiency, a deficiency of omega-3s is well-linked to low mood and depression, and may also make you more likely to suffer from symptoms such as poor sleep and concentration, dry skin and eyes, lifeless hair, brittle nails, general fatigue, joint pain, difficulty in losing weight and high triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood).
The only way to know your blood level of omega-3s is by measuring it, with the Omega-3 Index test.
The University of Stirling developed the Omega Blood Count™ test – a rapid, non-invasive, spot testing of blood samples for Omega-3s, which can be done privately and normally costs £50. For further information, contact Patricia Hess at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01786 466 687
It is noteworthy that if you are taking a fish oil supplement like Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil, depending on the severity of the deficiency, it can take 2 weeks to 2 months until your deficiency state is corrected and you see and feel the benefits.
How much fish should you aim to eat each day to increase and maintain levels?
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, a group of experts who advise the UK government recommends that we have that 450mg of the essential long chain omega 3-fats – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) each day, or around 3g a week. To meet this need, the UK Department of Health recommends that we should all eat two portions of fish a week, one of them being oily – such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, fresh tuna. A serving of fish should weigh about 170g raw – that’s about 140g, when it is cooked – (a good sized fillet of salmon).
Is there a risk of heavy metals being present in the fish oil pills?
Supplementation offers a convenient, safe, precise and measurable dose to increase omega-3 intakes (they are widely available and portable with a longer shelf life than fresh fish, and remove concerns over the potential accumulation within the body of detrimental toxins associated with eating fish). However, it is important to remember that not all fish oil supplements are created equally and you should get into the habit of checking quality standards when buying your chosen supplement to ensure that the product is checked at every stage of production for purity and consistency of dose of the essential omega-3s EPA and DHA to maximise concentrations in the body, and that the supplement company complies with good manufacturing practice (GMP) in the UK.
Seven Seas has over 80 years experience in sourcing the finest fish and producing clear, refined oil of the highest quality.
Can you have too much EPA / DHA in your body?
Whilst it’s advised that we each have two portions of fish a week with one of them being oily, the trust is that in the UK, many of us fail to meet the oily fish recommendations and could benefit from increasing our intakes of omega-3s nutrients.
That said, if you have bought a fish oil supplement like Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil, you should take the dose described on the packet. If you take more of it than you should, you should speak to your doctor or pharmacist. If you have any questions about taking a supplement, you have a specific health problem and are taking medication, or you wish to establish the best dose for your individual needs you should consult with your GP.
With regards to strategies to increase omegas (either taking pills or eating more oily fish), is one better than the other and can you do both alongside each other?
A healthy balanced diet should always come first! Fish are a complete nutrient package and an important source of many nutrients, including protein and long-chain essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (EPA and DHA), as well as several vitamins and minerals including selenium, iodine, potassium, vitamin D and B vitamins.
Food supplements as the name suggests are intended to supplement a diet and should not be regarded as a substitute for a healthy diet and balanced lifestyle. If you enjoy eating oily fish and are meeting the recommended quota a week, then you probably don’t need to supplement your intake. However, if eating oil-rich fish is not to your taste, then it would be wise to take a daily omega-3 supplement, as our bodies cannot produce DHA and EPA.
A high quality fish oil supplement, like Seven Seas Pure Cod Liver Oil provides a useful source of omega-3s (as well as vitamin D – another key vitamin that is deficient in the UK population and is important for healthy bones and muscles – one fifth of adults surveyed having low levels) for those who do not like the taste of oil-rich fish, or are following a plant based diet and don’t eat fish or other animal products.