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Flaxseed versus fish oil
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Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Flaxseed versus fish oil on 11/23/2008 17:19:37 MST Print View

We seemed to get very off-topic on a previous thread regarding the merits of flaxseed versus fish oil, so I've started a new thread.

My opinion (now shared by many colleagues), is that, although both oils have healthful benefits, the purported benefits of flaxseed oil have not stood up to clinical testing. Add to that the availablility of very high quality purified, concentrated and encapsulated fish oil supplements versus the highly labile (heat and oxygen) properties of flaxseed oil, and I think we have a clear winner for UL hiking supplements.

Here's a synopsis from the previous thread:

Fish oil or flaxseed oil? That is the question posed by millions of health-conscious people each day. But what is the main reason why millions of people are reaching for either fish oil or flaxseed oil? If you said omega-3 fatty acids then you're correct.

But what if I told you that one of these oils doesn't present us with a viable or usable source of omega-3s in the body? Pretty shocking, eh!

Well the truth of the matter is that fish oil offers you a much better omega-3 "bang for your buck". Why? It all boils down to two important compounds known as EPA and DHA.

We need EPA and DHA to protect our heart, for healthy brain and eye development, prevention and treatment of skin diseases, arthritis, for immune function and more.

Why Not Just Eat Flax?

For decades a debates have been fought about whether flaxseed oil could provide adequate levels of EPA. The verdict - flaxseed should never be used for its EPA producing ability.

Flaxseed oil is a wonderful healing oil but it is not a source of EPA.

Having said, I will often add flaxseed oil to many of my salad dressings and other foods but it is not the oil I use for EPA and DHA.

Research shows that flaxseed oil is poorly converted to EPA and that it provides absolutely no DHA. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated 45 healthy men and post-menopausal women (18 to 65). They all had normal cholesterol and were asked to eat olive oil as their oil source. They were divided into 3 groups. One got ALA (alpha linolenic acid - from flax) and the other two with a supplemental form of EPA.

Each was given 750mg for 3 weeks and then 1,500mg for 3 weeks in a supplement. Both the EPA groups had significant increases in EPA in red blood cells however there was no increase in EPA in the ALA (flax) group. Neither the ALA nor EPA group showed significant increases in DHA; which, means that we should also supplement with DHA.

The reason why the flax ALA group did not witness an increase in EPA in red blood cells is because of an enzyme in the body that is needed to convert ALA to EPA.

This enzyme called the Delta-6-desaturase if not working properly stops the conversion of ALA to EPA. The Flax Council of Canada states that flaxseed has a limited conversion to EPA in healthy people of up to only 8%! However, new very sophisticated studies are showing that this is even rare.

The reasons why the Delta-6-desaturase enzyme does not work as well as why we can't convert ALA to EPA are as follows (not an exhaustive list):

* Anyone with diabetes has a faulty delta-6 enzyme

* Genetics

* Viral infection

* Allergic disease

* High cholesterol

* Stress hormones

* Aging

* Menopause (menopausal women have been found to have an inactive enzyme)

* Alcohol

* Smoking

* Arachidonic acid

* Saturated fat

* Trans fatty acid consumption in the diet

* Nutrient deficiency of Zinc, B6, vitamin C

I would like to hear others ideas, opinions etc...I for one use a flaxseed/borage oil in a lot of dressings, as I both like the taste, and think the lignans in flaxseed are potentially valuable in the prevention of certain diseases. I keep this oil in the freezer for longevity. I take pharmaceutical grade fish oil for my source of essential omega-3 (plus eat salmon a few times per week). When I hit the trail I take only the fish oil caps, as the thought of rancid flaxseed oil is not appelaing to me (I use olive oil instead).

Edited by retropump on 11/23/2008 17:25:56 MST.

Huzefa Siamwala
(huzefa) - M
Re: Flaxseed versus fish oil on 11/23/2008 19:46:30 MST Print View

Great post Allison. Thanks for sharing this!

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: Flaxseed versus fish oil on 11/23/2008 20:46:06 MST Print View

Yep.....reading up on it and there is a line of thought that women trying to get pregnant or who are should not take flaxseed supplements. Having the oil in meals isn't an issue - it was the habit of taking high amounts for a "vitamin effect" that many are in the habit of doing.

P. P.
(toesnorth) - F

Locale: PNW
Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/23/2008 20:50:32 MST Print View

Thanks, Allison.
I use fish oil routinely and flaxseed occasionally.

John Carter

Locale: Pacific Northwest
re: Flaxseed vs fish oil on 11/23/2008 21:51:24 MST Print View


Very interesting thread, and one that I recently looked into, as I have a brother who is a vegan biochemist.

Everything you list is correct; the important thing for consumers to realize is that omega-3 is not a single compound, and thus the ALA in flaxseed is wholly different than the EPA and DHA in flaxseed oil.

However, there is something else important to note, and that is that the fish themselves do not produce omega-3's. Rather, the Omega 3's come from the algae they eat, and it is stored in their bodies. So vegetarians can take comfort in knowing that the beneficial compounds are actually plant-based, and the fish is merely a transporter of that nutrient.

Unfortunately, while algae has plentiful DHA, it contains very little EPA. Fish consume algae and other algae-eating animals, which concentrates the EPA up the food chain. We then eat the fish with their concentrated EPA. So eating whole algae may not provide EPA in sufficient concentrations. In early 2007, a Swiss company announced it has developed the first known process for extracting EPA from algae, but no products have been announced.

So yes, Allison, you are correct that fish is still the best source of EPA. And this is likely the main source of EPA our ancestors relied on for millennia. But for those concerned about mercury, or for strict vegetarians, there will soon be a plant-based alternative which comes from the actual source of the fatty acids.

One last comment on the subject: most companies that extract fish oil supplements filter out contaminants such as mercury and PCB. USA Today recently reported on a study that found no measurable levels of mercury or PCB in any of the 41 products they tested for. They also found that the companies use younger fish, which have less time to accumulate the toxins.

Of course, this makes me wonder if the younger fish have enough time to accumulate enough EPA from the algae, but it's probably not worth worrying about.

Edited by jcarter1 on 11/23/2008 22:01:24 MST.

P. P.
(toesnorth) - F

Locale: PNW
Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/23/2008 22:11:38 MST Print View

John, thank you for your comments. I have sent them along to my vegan relatives.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/23/2008 22:20:22 MST Print View

Unfortunately, it is now becoming clear that omega-3 oils are not the only thing you can get from fish. Increasingly, we are now measuring significant amounts of mercury in fish. To the extent that in some areas there is a health warning against eating too much fish.


Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/24/2008 09:12:49 MST Print View

What I do is add flax and or olive oils to my foods, whether veggies, meats, or soups. Then I eat whole fish about 3 times a week usually salmon or haddock.
How to translate this into backpacking Im not sure. I have brought salmon jerky or smoked salmon on long hikes before.
Lots of people carry olive oil and flax could stay good if its in your pack out of the sun -how long? I havnt tested.
But I dont always eat the typical backpacker food and I dont eat in the typical patterns in daily life either.
( see Ori Hofmekler' Anti-Estrogenic Diet and the Warrior diet
also Marty Gallaghers Purposeful Primitive)

John Carter

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/24/2008 10:50:30 MST Print View


While it doesn't solve the greater environmental problem, if you cut back on fish and instead consume fish oil, you will get the benefits of omega-3's without the mercury risk (see my above post re: mercury filtering in distilled omega 3 oils).

Or, just backpack in pristine areas at least once a week and catch fresh fish each time you are out. =)

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Re: "Flaxseed versus fish oil" on 11/24/2008 11:53:32 MST Print View

>Unfortunately, it is now becoming clear that omega-3 oils are not the only thing you can get from fish. Increasingly, we are now measuring significant amounts of mercury in fish. To the extent that in some areas there is a health warning against eating too much fish.

This is absolutely (and sadly) correct. Recent guidelines I came across recommended eating no more than 1 can of tuna per week! The worst offenders are actually farmed salmon as it seems they feed them really bad food that makes them highest in a variety of toxins, and they are very low in EPA/DHA (pink salmon is a relatively poor source of omega-3s). So in many ways, purified fish oil supplements are a safer bet than the real thing.

Another thing to consider is that there are *other* decent sources of EPA/DHA (not all of our ancestors had access to fatty fish). Although most wild game is lower in fat than farmed animals, they also tend to be higher in omega-3s. And free-range animals are higher than pasture fed. Pasture fed are higher than feed-lot fattened.

Omega 3s in beef and lamb that feed on grass is 7% of the total fat content, compared to 1% in grain-only fed beef.

Grass-fed beef and lamb has the recommended ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats (3:1.)

Grass-fed beef and lamb is loaded with other natural minerals and vitamins, plus it's a great source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) a fat that reduces the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a number of immune disorders.

Beef or lamb, in its natural grass-fed state, is a health food of the highest order. So go hunting!!! Or at least buy NZ or OZ free-range or grass fed meat ;) (No, I am not affiliated with the beef and lamb industry...)

Finally, we can go withough ingesting EPA/DHA for extended periods of time without detrimental effects on our helath, so if you are hiking less than ~ 2 weeks, you probably don't have to worry about it. And some more good news for vegans is that, if your intake of EPA/DHA is low, your body does tend to upregulate the enzymes needed to convert ALA/flaxseed to the longer chain EFAs. And women are overall better at this conversion than men, especially making DHA from ALA/Flaxseed. So although flaxseed may not be optimal, for some people it will be better than nothing (and of course flaxseed oil has other beneficial effects on health).

>Or, just backpack in pristine areas at least once a week and catch fresh fish each time you are out. =)

Now THAT'S a recipe for healthy living ;)

Edited by retropump on 11/24/2008 11:59:00 MST.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Fish on 11/24/2008 12:05:19 MST Print View

I eat fish but I just watch out for how much I eat! In other words, since I am a female in my 30's I keep it to under 2-3 servings a week and I avoid certain types of fish as well.

But alas....oh how I do love a piece of gorgeous Alaskan Salmon. Drool........salmon was a major undoing of my vegan years. I just love the stuff. But I don't eat it more than 2-3 times a month or so to be a good kid.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Oils on 11/24/2008 12:34:56 MST Print View

Perfect. I don't like fish. Guess I'd better get capsules.

danny mullins
(danny900) - F
Flaxseed versus fish oil on 08/18/2010 07:35:14 MDT Print View

Flaxseed oil vs fish oil,both are equally rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids. But the major difference between the two is that flaxseed oil contains only alpha-linolenic acid, whereas fish oil contains eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Let us have a look at these two types of oils in detail.

Mark Regalia
(markr) - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz
Or neither on 08/18/2010 09:29:18 MDT Print View

The latest survey study of the literature by a scientist concluded that the only clear benefit from either is for someone recovering from a heart attack. Maybe some inflammation reduction for arthritus suffers, maybe. That is the problem with looking at individual studies. They only suggest things. They do not prove anything. For that you require follow up studies and variations on the way the tests are run. It happens constantly. That's science, though you would never know that from the popular media, or those who want to exploit new markets.

Remember cold fusion? No one was ever able to duplicate it. Remember anerobic threshold for athletes, turns out there is no such thing. Training at altitude, nada.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Or neither on 08/18/2010 17:33:50 MDT Print View

"Remember anerobic threshold for athletes, turns out there is no such thing. Training at altitude, nada"


Zachary Zrull
(zackcentury) - F

Locale: Great Lakes
reduction of omega 6 may remove need for supplements on 08/18/2010 21:26:25 MDT Print View

A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that intake requirements of omega 3 fats are dependent on concurrent intake of omega 6 fats, and so reduction of omega 6 may remove a need for supps altogether.

Some recommendations outside the USA are as little as 100-200mg omega 3 fats per day. The USA recommedations of 3.5-4 grams (not mg!) is based on the "normal" American intake of omega 6 fats, which is relatively high.

If you eat a variety of natural foods regularly, and perhaps take some dried fish, fruits, and vegetables while hiking, you probably don't need to supplement unless you need it in drug-like quantities. Why treat a problem that does not exist? Fish, and most eggs, contain EPA and DHA, and these foods can be dried for backpacking purposes.

It seems clear that flax is not the best supplement source, but I would argue that we may not even need to supplement if we spent just a little time thinking about the other types of oils we regularly consume.

Edited by zackcentury on 08/18/2010 21:28:00 MDT.

Paul Siegel

Locale: Southern Appalachians
Re: reduction of omega 6 may remove need for supplements on 08/18/2010 21:58:01 MDT Print View

Your supposition is only true if you hunt/gather your own wild food, cook it yourself and avoid anything processed at all. Ever.

For most people it is nigh on impossible to guarantee the correctness of every ingredient they eat, not to mention the confusion over what an ideal hunter/gather diet transposed to the real world would consist of. Even eating fish 3 times a week, depending on the rest of your diet, may not be enough.

This all leads to the recommendation for Fish Oil supplementation, more appropriately termed compensator supplementation. The standard dosage is .25/.5g of EPA/DHA per 10 lbs of body weight if you're not banged up and injured and eating a diet low in omega 6's. If you are eating a diet high in Omega 6 (lots of processed food, grains, bad oils, etc.) or suffering from an inflammatory disease that dosage would be closer to .5g/1g per 10 lbs.

Nathan Moody
(atomick) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Flaxseed versus fish oil on 08/18/2010 22:42:28 MDT Print View

Side note: We just made biscotti for an upcoming backpacking trip and overdid the flaxseed amounts, crushing them first. They have an aftertaste like fish. I mean...possible health benefits aside, kinda eeewww. ;-)

Zachary Zrull
(zackcentury) - F

Locale: Great Lakes
re:re: omega 3 on 08/18/2010 22:57:07 MDT Print View

Why won't fish and eggs we buy at the store contain omega 3s in consistent or accurate quantities? I would assume all the nutrient information published by the USDA is gathered from "consumer" sources, and not "the wild". Are you suggesting that we supplement because nobody knows what he's eating? And if processing is the problem, aren't most fish oil supplements going to have been processed? Only cold processed oils harvested from 100% wild and healthy fish should be acceptable, then. If there's so much confusion about the food industry, I'd have to say the supplement industry is no better...

Mark Regalia
(markr) - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz
Sources on 08/19/2010 09:03:06 MDT Print View

My sources are the same as my sources for the original information. Velonews and other bicyling pubs. They typically have a doctor who keeps up on this info.

Clarification for the altitude training. The rule now is train at sea level, sleep at high altitude. The reason is that if you train at sea level you can get more oxygen and therefore go harder. I read an article about the US cross coutry ski team. The competitors from Colorado and other high areas complained because the US team always holds tryouts on the east coast which gave the locals a big advantage as they trained at sea level and so were able to train harder.