A Fish Story
Is eating fish the same as eating fish oil? If you believe advertising and the drumbeat of omega 3 supplement makers, you might think so.
The facts are different.
Why is Fish Different From Fish Oil?
Fish contain thousands of different substances. They include many different proteins, vitamins, oils, carbohydrates – quite a few with major effects on the brain. Fish oils are made up of separate extracts of certain fatty acids of fish, of which DHA and EPA are written of as particularly healthy.
Fish oils only contain certain oils from certain fish. The amounts of extract will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and from pill to pill. And as recent studies point out, the results may not be as terrific as one thinks.
Fish Oil in Pregnancy
In 2007, a large British study produced an unusual result. Women had been discouraged from eating fish – due to the rise in mercury in our food supply. However, pregnant women who ate the most fish had kids with higher IQs looked at five years on. The higher the intake, the higher the IQ – with the top group having kids with IQs about 6 points greater.
Now a Spanish study shows that fish oil alone, plus fish oil with folate, did not change IQ or cognitive ability once the kids reached six years of age.
Are these results contradictory?
First fish is not the same as fish oil. Those thousands of extra substances do entirely different things from extracted “essences.” Food is more than the sum of its parts, as Michael Pollan has been explaining for years.
Is orange juice the same as having a full orange? How much different then to eat real fish, versus an industrial sub-product of fish.
Also of concern, the Spanish study did not control for diet. Lots of other things might impact kids’ cognitive performance beyond fish oil.
Third, you can’t control for everything in studies – even if you try. Higher socioeconomic groups will tend to eat more fish, as it is expensive, especially as it becomes regarded as more and more “healthy.”
Why Eat Fish?
Fish is associated with:
Less heart disease
Many long lived populations eat quite a bit of fish
90% of the world’s fish have already been fished out
The higher you go up the food chain, the more mercury tends to appear in the fish (it seems that raptors, who eat other fish, are filled with more and more toxins the bigger the fish they eat)
Aquaculture fish are not the same as wild bred – the amounts and types of “healthy” ingredients appear quite different, and many aquaculture fish are bred with the potentially unhealthy methods (including antibiotics) used in land breeding of animals.
Fish is not fish oil. Though pushed as having multiply healthy results, fish oil simply cannot contain all the healthful components of whole fish. So from a personal standpoint that also protects public health please consider
- Eating fish 2-3 times a week – or more
- Eat whole fish, not extracted “essences”
- A little goes a long way – 2-3 ounces at a time may suffice
- Stick to small, wild but unendangered species of fish like sardines, herring, anchovies – they provide presumably healthy fish fats in high measure without the high levels of mercury found in bigger fish
- Eat fish as a condiment – for taste. You can also place it into most meals, including breakfast, as occurs in many cultures throughout the globe.
- Food is information. You body processes information to live and survive. Each different kind of fish gives much information – to the brain, the immune system, the liver – which fish oil alone cannot provide.
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