A Primer on Essential Fatty Acids: Part One


A primer is an introduction for those with little or no knowledge of a field, therefore, you may wish to skip this if you are already familiar with the basics of essential fatty acids.


Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are defined as such since they must be obtained from the diet (thus are “essential”), and cannot be produced in the body from other elements.

These fats are required for a wide range of biological functions, including regulation of metabolism, mood, and maintenance of reproductive functions in adults. In offspring they are necessary for early growth and development, normal brain function, and stimulation of bone, hair, and skin growth. And, since our bones, hair, and skin require EFAs even as adults, it becomes obvious that we require EFAs throughout our lives in order to remain healthy.

There are currently three categories of fatty acids that must be derived from the diet: omegas-3, 6, and 9. In part one we will focus on, arguably, the most important one, omega-3. While I will be mostly discussing fish oils, I will also cover some of the vegetarian options for deriving these important fatty acids.

The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids                                             

By now, most of us are aware that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, help protect us from heart disease, are important for mental health, and help to keep inflammatory conditions in check. Clinical studies have also indicated that these fatty acids have a role to play in protecting us from Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, depression, and vision problems.

Furthermore “there have been a number of clinical trials assessing the benefits of dietary supplementation with fish oils in several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases in humans, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis and migraine headaches”.   (Source)

And now, we are finding that some of these benefits may be in part due to omega-3s having a direct influence on the gut microbiome: “accumulating evidence in animal model studies indicates that the interplay between gut microbiota, omega-3 fatty acids, and immunity helps to maintain the intestinal wall integrity and interacts with host immune cells” as well, “human and animal studies have highlighted the ability of omega-3 PUFAs to influence the gut-brain axis, acting through gut microbiota composition”.   (Source)

Supplementing With Fish Oil                                                                            
Clearly we all need adequate amounts of omega-3s, which requires consuming deep water fish (our best sources of omega-3s), three or more times per week. Those fish richest in omega-3s include herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, and trout. (Cod is also included but is usually high in mercury, and so should not be eaten regularly.)

However, if we do not eat fish regularly, for whatever reasons, or if we have any of the ailments touched on above, we will want to use a fish oil supplement.

There is however some confusion on which fish oil supplement to choose. This confusion arises from the fact that all the capsules are the same size (usually 1000 to 1200 mg), yet contain varying amounts of actual omega-3s. Remember that, for general maintenance purposes, it is suggested we should obtain about 1000 mg of actual omega-3s daily (much more for therapeutic purposes), in the forms of DHA and EPA.

To explain in more detail let’s look at the actual level of these two prime components that constitute what we refer to as omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid).

Now, a capsule of salmon oil contains about 80 mg of EPA and 70 mg of DHA. Whereas a capsule the same size containing oil from anchovies, sardines, and mackerel (the most common mix),  will usually contain 180 mg of EPA along with 120 mg of DHA. So, as you can see, we get twice as much omega-3s in capsules derived from those three fish, compared to salmon oil, even though the capsules are the same size.

If the issue were simple Western math, i.e. more is better, our choice would be clear. However, it is not that simple.

Concentrated Fish Oil Products                                                                         
The next thing to examine is the “extra strength” fish oil products, which concentrate the amounts of DHA and EPA.

An extra strength omega-3 capsule will usually provide 400 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA per capsule, twice what the regular strength capsule contains.

My concern with the higher strength products (and the aforementioned “more is better” principle) is that when we concentrate one element we are trading off other elements. And, those compounds that we are excluding, in order to concentrate our chosen compounds, may have more value than we currently understand. Thus, we have found after decades of taking fish oil supplements that, unlike eating fish, these oils do not prevent stroke. (“Researchers found that fish oil omega-3 supplements lowered risk for heart attack and Coronary Heart Disease death. There was no effect on stroke.” Source)

Let’s take a brief segue into an example of how this idea of concentrating what we consider to be the “active” components, goes astray: consider soy foods.

We start off by observing the dietary patterns of a culture, in this case, the Japanese.

Japanese people have lower heart disease rates than those in the West (even though they have more smokers), and we attribute this, in part, to the ability of soy protein to lower cholesterol. Not long after this revelation, we were marketing soy protein shakes, and then isolated soy isoflavones in capsules. But, what gets overlooked in this approach is that every time a Japanese citizen has some tofu or tempeh, they are eating it instead of meat.

And, they most likely have some seaweed with it (which is important, since soy is a goitegen and impedes thyroid function, whereas seaweed, due to its iodine content, counteracts this tendency), which also contributes to their overall health.

The point is, by the time we have replaced a dietary component with a pill, we are a far cry from the population studies that supported the health benefits of the food in the first place.

Likewise, in the past the Inuit had cholesterol levels that were off the world-map and, up until they started eating a modern diet, had virtually no heart disease. This was due mainly to the large amounts of omega-3 oils in their traditional diet. But again: they mostly ate seafood instead of meat. So, if I take a fish oil pill with my steak, am I actually going to get the same benefits that eating fish offers?

That being said, there is one advantage to omega-3 pills have over eating fish, and that is the fish oils (when purchased from a reputable company) will have been processed in such a manner as to remove any mercury, or other toxic compounds, often found in fish currently inhabiting our messed up oceans.

This is why when eating fish we want to eat the smaller, shorter-lived one, such as anchovies, herring, salmon, sardines, and trout. They don’t live long enough to pick up 30 years worth of toxins as a large cod or tuna fish might. (However, properly processed cod and tuna oils will also be free of toxins, but ensure you buy such oils from a reputable source.)

Isolated Omega-3s

Aside from concentrated fish oil products, there is one other level of tampering that goes on, based on the standard Western reductionist approach.

Now that we have reduced a dietary system to a pill, and concentrated that original material, we take it to the next step, pharmaceutical in nature, which is to further divide the omega-3s into separate DHA and EPA products.

Products that are almost exclusively DHA are primarily marketed for mental focus and for fetal development during pregnancy, and those products that are dominantly EPA are marketed mostly for depression and inflammation.

Now, while some early studies have indicated that isolated EPA is more effective for treating bipolar disorders and schizophrenia, generally speaking we are better off taking the whole structure of the oil. And current research confirms that, while such conditions seem to benefit from a higher EPA content (at least 60% of the total), including some DHA does not impede its effectiveness. (Source)

Limited studies have implied that high levels of isolated EPA may deplete the body of DHA, which makes perfect sense, since these things exist together in nature for a reason. Similarly, if we take high amounts of only one of the family of B-vitamins, we will deplete ourselves of some of the other B-vitamins. And, if we take only alpha tocopherol vitamin E, we run the risk of depleting ourselves of gamma tocopherol.

At this point let’s go back to the beginning, and look at salmon oil again. A salmon oil capsule, though relatively low in DHA and EPA, also contains omegas 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, as well as other omega-3 compounds (like docosapentaenoic acid or DPA, which has been shown to improve the absorption of DHA and EPA dramatically).

All these other fatty acid compounds are missing from the concentrated fish oil products. These are the elements that are traded off when we focus too much on DHA and EPA, and that are found naturally occurring in the fish we eat.

We do know that omega-7 fatty acids have the ability to clean out arterial plaque, when used in a concentrated and isolated form. So, yes there is a place for the isolated products, but they should be considered more drug-like and less like food.

However, the point here is that whole fish contain an element that keeps arterial plaque at bay, and this may be the very reason that eating fish can prevent stroke, whereas fish oil pills do not have this attribute (except maybe salmon oil pills: not yet determined).

Choosing a Fish Oil Supplement                                                                     
Thus, outside of short term therapeutic treatment with concentrated omega-3 products, I usually recommend taking salmon or krill oil as general fish oil supplements.

Krill oilis even lower than salmon in measured amounts of DHA and EPA, but like salmon oil is unprocessed, and so contains the full range of omega fatty acids. And, since krill oil is in a phospholipid form, rather than a triglyceride form like all other fish oils (except herring roe), it absorbs at least five times better than other fish-derived forms of omegas.

When choosing a fish oil product you first have a choice between liquid and capsule, and then a choice between a regular gelatin capsule and one that is “enteric-coated”.

Liquid is the best choice for two reasons: a liquid is less processed than putting that liquid in a capsule, a process which requires heat in its production; and a liquid is easier to use for therapeutic purposes.

A teaspoon of regular strength fish oil is equal to about 4 capsules of the regular strength fish oil, and is much easier to use when needing therapeutic doses to treat ailments. In such cases one would need 8 or 12 capsules, versus 2 or 3 teaspoons.

This amount of course drops if we use the extra strength products, or the products with concentrated amounts of DHA or EPA. However, I do strongly suggest that those using such products ensure that there is at least some of the other omega-3 along with the high amounts of the concentrated one (e.g. 1500 mg EPA with 500 mg DHA).

Most of the high quality fish oils are relatively tasteless when added to a protein shake. I often add a teaspoon of high quality fish oil in my yogurt and granola, and do not notice the taste at all. Even when taken straight off the spoon these oils go down easily, and since they are running through the mouth, one does not need to take them with a fatty meal.

Sometimes when people take fish oil capsules they get it “repeating” on them. That is they burp fish taste. This often occurs because they don’t take it at a meal containing fat. When you swallow a pill there is no signal from the mouth to the stomach as to what is coming down the pike, and what enzymes need to be released in order to properly digest it. (This holds true for all fat-soluble nutrients in pill form,  including vitamins A, D, E and K.)

Thus, fish oils should be taken at meals where you are eating fat, which should not be a problem since most regular meals contain some fat. Animal protein contains fat, as do nuts, salad dressing, and many sauces. However you find fat in the meal, the important thing is that your body knows fat is on its way down, releases the proper enzymes, and properly digests the fish oil thereby preventing repeating of fish taste.

If taking the fish oil pills with a fatty meal doesn’t work, and for those with weak or sensitive digestion, there are the enteric-coated capsules. Enteric coating protects the pill from dissolving in stomach acid, only digesting once it reaches the intestinal tract. This form of fish oil will not repeat on you, even if you take the pills with a fat-free meal. On the other hand, absorption will still be somewhat reduced if there is no fat at all accompanying the enteric coated pills.

Krill oil is another option for those who find fish oil difficult to digest as it is renown for having no “repeating” effect, even though it is not enteric coated (though should still be taken with a meal containing fat).

In Part Two we will look at vegetarian sources of omega-3s, and examine the other two essential fatty acids.

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