You've probably heard of them, ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS - Omega 3 and 6 that balance our body's inflammation and immune response, improve brain function, assist cardiovascular and reproductive health, and make us awesome.
The problem lies in the abundance of Omega 6s in our current food system. Omega 6s are heavily present in industrial seed oils like canola, corn, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, and safflower oil; and these oils are everywhere. Omega 6s are also found in factory farmed meats, salad dressings and condiments, fried foods, and most processed foods.
It's important to note that we don't want to cut out Omega 6 and only eat Omega 3s - Omega 6s are still important to healthy functioning of our immune system.
If you are already a hardcore real-foodie, and you've cut out ALL processed food, and eat a diet rich in vegetables, properly raised animal proteins, and only healthy fats, your Omega 3/ Omega 6 levels will balance out to a healthy ratio, around 1:3, similar to a ratio our ancestors likely had.
Buuuuttt, that's not most of us, who still eat a donut every now and then or have absolutely no power over a bowl of tortilla chips. We may still want to try to up the O3 intake and reduce the O6 intake a bit.
Enter: the supplement industry, who's told us we MUST take fish or flax oil (both high in Omega 3) immediately, in order to remedy this situation.
Let's break down your options.
Before we even start, I'm going to vote for you to skip BOTH flaxseed oil, and fish oils, in *supplement* form. You see, because Omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, it is not very stable in the presence of oxygen, or heat, and can easily break down into something not very useful and actually harmful to the body. Consider the process to extract flax or fish oils - usually involving a lot of heating, mechanical pressing, and possibly deodorizing and bleaching. Heavily processed. Bad news.
(There is one exception to my no fish-oils rule, from Green Pastures, a company that produces a cod-liver oil using an ancestral fermentation method without harsh processing; you can check them out here)
Let's move on to the comparison of the real food version of both - flax seeds vs. real fish.
The wonderful Omega 3 we're looking for actually has different forms: ALA, DHA, and EPA. (For nerds, that's alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid - but seriously, who can even pronounce those?)
Most of the health benefits of Omega 3s are associated with DHA and EPA. And flax is mostly ALA. ALA can be broken down into EPA and DHA but the human body doesn't do well with this conversion, so when ALA is consumed, you don't end up with much of the good stuff, EPA and DHA.
It's been shown that the conversion of ALA to EPA is less than 9%, even less converts to DHA (the healthy-brain fat) and even LESS converts in people already deficient in some particular nutrients like B vitamins. That's a crap-load of flax seeds just to equal the same amount of good stuff in a bite of sardines, in my technical opinion.
Cold-water fish like sardines, anchovies, and wild salmon have high levels of EPA and DHA already, no conversion necessary! Winner.
Plus, you are getting a host of other good stuff in a real piece of fish that you miss out on with an oil or a seed, like Vitamin D, selenium (which is said to protect against mercury exposure) and protein. All of this comes in the package nature intended it to be in. There's magic in that.
So toughen up, get yourself a can of wild-caught sardines (boneless/skinless is good for beginners) and get down with your fishy self!