We continue eating fish and exploiting sea life for many reasons. Along with strong cultural and societal influences, the recent impetus has been for their omega 3 content. We all know that these essential fatty acids are very important (referred to as “essential” because they are necessary for proper functioning of various cells, organs, and systems and our bodies are unable to produce them, therefore having to be obtained from our diet). However, it is how and from where we obtain them that are even more important. For instance, a 3 oz. serving of unsustainable Cod as a source provides 150-200 mg. of omega 3s, whereas one tablespoon of very sustainable Chia seeds provides over 2,000mg of omega 3s. Some of you may want me to discuss conversion ratios of alpha linolenic acid (ALA, the type of omega 3 found in plants) to DHA and EPA (the two primary forms of omega 3 found in fish), and that’s fine because the numbers are still there. And, what about flax seeds with 1,200 mg per tablespoon, walnuts, or hemp? All are exceptional sources of omega 3s as well.
If you view this with a different but more accurate perspective, we all need to understand that no fish actually has omega 3 fatty acids themselves. And, therein lies the fallacy.
Not one fish produces omega 3s on their own. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in microalgae or plants, which every fish has to eat in order to obtain them. Or, they need to eat other smaller fish that have consumed microalgae along the way.
So, in addition to finding omega 3s in plants, why don’t we just start going right to the source ourselves? My thought is that all those concerned should eat microalgae, like spirulina or chlorella, and skip right past fish and the ecological baggage that comes with producing and harvesting them, and bypass the health issues with consuming them. Just let them live.
Ninety seven percent of the world’s population eats fish. And, if you eat fish primarily because it’s healthy for you, then perhaps you should take a closer look at just what those health benefits are. Every fish you eat has saturated fat and cholesterol. Also, no fish has phytonutrients or fiber. Both are some of the most beneficial substances you could consume. Phytonutrients are those substances that will improve your immune system, reduce the likelihood you’ll develop cancer, and provide you with anti-inflammatory properties. All of these properties are extremely important and can be found only in plants. Thus far, we are not doing so well with the “healthy” aspect of fish are we? Fish higher up on the food chain, such as tuna, and those living the longest will have a large probability of containing higher levels of heavy metals, dioxin, and PCB contamination. And all fish caught anywhere in our oceans will contribute to bykill and the loss of interdependent and poorly understood ecosystems. But there are those omega 3s everyone is talking about, aren’t there? Remember though, you can get them from plants.
Forty seven percent of all fish consumed in the world today come from aquaculture (fish farms), which are growing faster than any other food sector. All fish grown on fish farms need artificial supplementation to obtain omega 3s. Typically, these factory farmed fish require a diet of fish meal, fish oil, and whole fish that were taken out of our already heavily depleted oceans in order for them to achieve appreciable amounts of both DHA and EPA. In fact, 87% of all fish oil and 53% of all fish oil produced in the world is fed to factory-farmed fish.
What about omega 6’s or 9’s? Do you need these? Omega 6, Linoleic Acid (LA), is an essential fatty acid as well—you need it, but in less amounts than what the typical person in our country is consuming. The healthy ratio of omega 6 fatty acid intake to omega 3 fatty acid is 4 to 1. But our current average intake is in a ratio of nearly 20 to 1, because of all the various foods we consume that have been made with heavy amounts of canola, corn, and other types of vegetable oils, and processing which tend to contain large amounts of omega 6 fatty acids. Linoleic acid is an upregulator of inflammation. Your body does need LA but not in such large amounts and not so imbalanced. That’s where omega 3s come in—which are down regulators of inflammation. Meaning, they suppress inflammation. So omega 3s help reduce your likelihood of developing chronic diseases of inflammation such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc. But always keep in mind that any animal products you eat actually contribute to the development of these diseases so rather than an over focus on intake of omega 3s you should be first looking at reducing intake of inflammation promoting products derived from animals. Meaning all animals—livestock, chickens, and fish.
Omega 9, or oleic acid such as found in olive oil, is another important fatty acid but your body can produce it from other unsaturated fatty acids so it is not considered essential. It’s also interesting to note that olive oil’s well documented healing properties and health benefits are from its high amount of polyphenols (antioxidants) from the olive plant itself—not from the fatty acid or oil content directly.
Here are some additional insights. When you consume alpha linolenic acid (from chia, flax, hemp, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, etc.), your body converts it to DHA and EPA at a rate of 1-9%, but 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines has recommendations of ALA at 1.1-1.6 g/day because your brain only needs 3.8 mg and your body can store and assimilate DHA/EPA (converted from ALA or otherwise) for up to 2 yrs—with a half life of two to five years. And, once again, there are over 2 grams (2,000 mg) of omega 3s from ALA in just one tablespoon of chia seeds. Omega 6 (LA) competes with conversion of ALA to DHA/EPA if omega 6 to omega 3 intake ratios are more than 4:1, therefore impeding your body’s ability to assimilate and use omega 3. Minerals such as zinc, selenium, magnesium as well as all vitamin Bs, and C also help with absorption of omega 3s from plants.
If you do skip fish and go right to the source, you could eat microalgae such as spirulina—used by the Aztecs and in Chad dating back to the 9th century. Spirulina has omega 3s in the form of DHA, EPA, and ALA, numerous phytonutrients like beta carotene and a complete amino acid profile with low amounts of methionine and cysteine (two amino acids found in all animal products that contribute to various disease states). Spirulina has shown to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, cardiovascular benefits, and has even demonstrated to slow the progression of HIV by inhibiting replication. For those concerned about protein—ounce for ounce, spirulina has four times more protein than fish, chicken, pork, or beef. It is also a source of vitamin B12 and is easily digested. It is one of the richest, most nutrient dense of all whole foods with over 2000 enzymes and phytonutrients. In terms of global growing applications and with respect to the potential for global depletion, spirulina can produce up to 1500 times more protein per acre than beef and it grows in both salt and fresh water.
Chlorella is another great choice for omega 3s, providing two to three times as much protein as fish or other animal products with all essential amino acids, vitamin B12, and many other vitamins and minerals.
The average American eats 16 pounds of fish per year but the 2010 USDA Guidelines recommends doubling the amount of seafood we eat because of “health benefits”. Health benefits to us? To our planet? To the fishing industry? Our country consumed 5 billion pounds of seafood in 2010. Perhaps it would make sense for the USDA to inform consumers of all the health benefits of eating plant based foods, the many and significant advantages these foods have over eating fish, and emphasize the continued global depletion that occurs with every bite of fish that we take. It also, then, would make sense for all influential organizations and our media to spend at least the same amount of time disseminating the reality of the negative effects of our choice to eat fish as is spent on them being a source of omega 3s. Everyone needs to know the full impact eating fish has on the health of our planet and on our own health. It is time to become aware. Instead of mass producing, harvesting, catching, killing and eating fish—just let them live.