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[fair warning: this post is a ploy to get you to eat fish. Full disclosure: I own stock in the fish industry. #sarcasm]

"Take fish oil."

It’s the standard recommendation of almost every medical practitioner, nutrition consultant, trainer and well-intentioned friend, co-worker, and neighbor on this planet.
 
And while some practitioners are also keen to recommend eating more fish, it’s seldom we truly explore the differences between the two, and why they are absolutely not the same, much less interchangeable. There may be a place for fish oil for some people, some of the time – but certainly not for most people, all of the time.
 
The battle begins.

 

When professionals, practitioners and others recommend fish oil, it's with the intention of recommending  a supplemental source of omega 3 fatty acids (that’s what fish oil is: supplemental omega 3) for the supposed anti-inflammatory effects.
 
We’ve been told that omega 3 is the “anti-inflammatory” fat, and that omega 6 is the “pro-inflammatory” fat. We’re told we need to balance our omega 3 – to – omega 6 ratio to quell inflammation and stay healthy. We’ve been told that omega 6 is bad, and omega 3 is good. Unfortunately, it's not that simple - and many of us are a little mixed up. (That's why I spent a hunk of Eat the Yolks tackling the topic.)
 
Given inflammation is a modern epidemic, it’s no surprise that fish oil is marketed as a cure-all for, and an insurance policy against, modern ailments from inflammation to heart disease to post-workout pain. And while I’d never outright tell someone who felt something they were doing was working to stop doing that thing (not my beeswax) when I’m asked my opinion, I have to be truthful:

I, like many others (a good summary post with references here) have my suspicions about fish oil supplements.
 
While I’ve put many more fascinating fish oil facts in my book, I have four main reasons why:
 
1) With fish oil, we’re “treating” the wrong problem.
2) When it comes to omega 3, more is not better.
3) Fish oil supplements are actually processed foods.
4) Fish oil is missing two critical factors: protection and nutrition.
 
We’re “treating” the wrong problem.
 
The root problem for which we take fish oil – inflammation – is not generally the result of a deficiency of omega 3 from fish oil. Therefore, it can’t generally be addressed with an bunch of omega 3 from fish oil.
 
The true problem is an over-abundance of a specific type of “pro-inflammatory” omega 6 fatty acid called Linoleic Acid (LA) from crappy, industrially processed oils, like soybean, cottonseed, and corn oils (the ones used in most modern foods, buffets, restaurants, and kitchens); therefore, to truly tackle the root of the problem, we must throw our focus toward getting rid of those processed oils, while focusing, over the long-term, on whole foods – like grass-fed meats, whole eggs, (#EatTheYolks) and seafood.
 
This will do what actually needs to be done: it will reduce intake of omega 6, while providing adequate omega 3 from whole food (where nature put it in the first place). This balances the 3:6 ratio naturally.
 
We often think that in times of inflammation – for example, post-exercise – that we need lots of extra “anti-inflammatory” fish oil. But all we truly need is a long-term balance of the pro- and anti-inflammatory oils such that our processes of damage (inflammation, like that caused by exercise) and repair (anti-inflammation, which heals damage and makes the body stronger) work properly.
 
We actually do need omega 6. We just need the right kind of omega 6, in biologically appropriate amounts: the omega 6 fatty acid in egg yolks, called Arachidonic Acid, is a perfect example. It helps initiate necessary inflammation as well as resolve it. Omega 6 Linoleic Acid in excess from crop oils? Not so much.
 
Yes, we need inflammation. We just need the right balance of anti-inflammation to resolve it effectively, and to our greatest benefit. Omega 3 and omega 6 are modulators of our body’s ability to initiate and resolve inflammation effectively. We need both, from the right sources.
 
The common question that arises here? If the ratio is so important, why does it matter whether we have a “good” ratio of a little omega 3 and omega 6; or a “good” ratio of a lot of omega 3 and omega 6. (In essence, why does it matter if I have a smidge of each, or a gallon of each, if the ratio is good to go?)
 
Here’s why:
 
When it comes to omega 3, more is not better.
 
Omega 3 is a PUFA - a Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid. Generally, in nature, this kind - and all kinds - of PUFA occur within protective packaging, like whole fish and seafood, and it's rare that we eat as much of it in its natural packaging as we do when we take fish oil supplements.

Fish oil supplements are composed almost entirely of PUFA in amounts we likely wouldn't get naturally, Their natural scarcity isn't a bad thing - the human biological requirement for PUFA is actually quite low, according to this special report. It’s no greater than what we can get from whole, real foods in their natural state.
 
My take-away: we can’t just hammer our bodies with supplemental fish oil to “balance” an out-of-whack ratio, or to “treat” extra inflammation, because we actually need to keep our overall intake of all PUFA low. Balanced – but low.
 
Dr. Chris Masterjohn’s work suggests that keeping intake of PUFA low, against the backdrop of a nutrient-dense diet rich in fat-soluble nutrients and saturated fats from healthful sources, is best for long-term health.
 
In fact, Dr. Masterjohn’s research indicates that out of the few relevant, well-structured scientific studies available that truly address the fat composition of the diet and associated long-term health outcomes, it appears that high intake of PUFA may be a risk factor for cancer.
 
Again: when it comes to omega 3, more is not better. By design, we don't need much.
 
And more from fish oil supplements is definitely not better. A potential explanation for Masterjohn’s observations on the possible connection between PUFA intake and adverse health outcomes is their extreme vulnerability to damage, and what this damage can do to our cells.
 
Unfortunately, this damage is highly likely to affect fish oil. Because:
 
Fish oil supplements (like vegetable oils)
are actually processed foods.
 
PUFA, including omega 3, are extremely fragile; much more so than monounsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil, avocado or lard) and saturated fats. This isn’t a problem when the PUFA itself is protected within its natural packaging – like the omega 3 PUFA in whole seafood.

But when PUFA is processed out of these whole, natural foods and put into a bottle or a capsule, we end up with a whale of a problem.
 
The methods used to extract fish oil from fish are often claimed as proprietary, but these fish oil companies certainly aren’t just wiping down free-range fish with a squeegee for a few drops of oil. There’s little doubt that the procedure requires a heavy-handed industrial process that involves heat and deodorizing chemicals. (I talk about this at length in Eat the Yolks.)
 
In essence, fish oil supplements are a highly processed food. No less processed than so-called “vegetable oils,” which are some of the most processed oils on this planet.
 
Damaged fatty acids that we swallow make their way to our cells – where they can actually cause more problems. In my opinion, that’s where a link between low PUFA intake and long-term health might be rooted.
 
Whether from fish oil supplements or highly processed vegetable oils, isolated PUFA is vulnerable to damage, or oxidation, in the extraction and refining process. That's a common consequence of industrial processing. 
 
This brings me to the final point:
 
Fish oil is missing two critical factors:
protection and nutrition.
 
This is grown-up talk. Lots of us don’t like seafood - sardines, mackerel, and shellfish make us shudder. That’s fine, and as grown-ups, we don’t have to eat them. (Although, if you want to, check out this old Email Monday: How to Eat Sardines and Love Every Bite!)

(It look me a long time to love sardines - hat tip to Lee Knight for teaching me to adore them! I'm doing my best to pay it forward.)
 
But to convince ourselves that fish oil capsules are an equal substitute for omega 3-rich fish is simply not wise. Fish oil has no natural protective packaging to prevent damage to the PUFA itself, and no nutrition to enhance its benefits. Sardines, other oily fish, and seafood are full of nutrients like taurine, vitamin D, and vitamin A, selenium, and CoQ10, all of which have incredible potential for enriching and maintaining our health.

Missing out on whole fish in favor of fish oil means missing out on many even more critical  nutrients than simply omega 3.
 
Fish oil is composed of a single, isolated nutrient, often “stabilized” by vitamin E, but it is neither naturally balanced in nutrients or fully protected from oxidation.
 
In my opinion, whole fish comes out victorious in this battle.
 
Getting our omega 3 fatty acids from food, as part of an anti-inflammatory Real Food diet rich in nutrients seems like the way to go.
 
I know this is a controversial topic, so let me know your thoughts by sending me a tweet or visit the facebook page!

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