What’s so special about fish oil? If it’s a part of paleo-friendly fish, why isn’t this “Paleo Guide to Fish?” And if we’re talking about the processed, capsuled fish oil, how in the world does that have any place in the paleo diet?
Fish oil minus the fish — it’s bound to be confusing. Not to mention the fact that fish oil and its fatty acids have been a hot topic of research in recent years, to the point where “omega 3” has become synonymous for miracle, health-promoting food. As a paleo dieter, though, you know that there’s no such thing— every kind of food has its place and interacts with the others to keep you in good health. So, before you decide to drop in on your local pharmacy for another bottle of those little golden capsules, take a look at what makes fish oil paleo, and why it’s not necessarily all about 0mega 3.
Where Does Fish Oil Fit Into the Paleo Diet?
When you’re looking for fish oil, you basically mean the fat that you find in sea-fish like herring, salmon and anchovy. These aren’t deep sea fish, however; they swim around the sunlit zone of the open ocean. That’s where the plankton and algae can photosynthesize best; that’s where the fish can thrive; and that’s where they’re easiest to catch (you’ll see why I’m giving you all these details in a bit).
These are classified as ‘oily’ fish because they contain lots of fatty tissue in their bellies, as opposed to ‘whitefish’ like cod and haddock, which have far less oil, found only in their livers. You want oily fish because those are the ones with your essential fatty acids like Omega 3 and Omega 6. Like essential amino acids, you can’t make these fatty acids on your own.
Interestingly enough, the fish can’t make them either! They acquire the fats from the green algae and phytoplankton that breeds in the sunlit zone. What the fish can do is process and store them in a form that predators — that includes us as well as larger fish— can metabolize more effectively. (Pasture-raised meat, anyone?) So, if you were a paleo hunter, you’d get your necessary dose of fish oil along with the fish you could catch.
You might not even need to go as far as the ocean— some of these oily fish, like herring and salmon, are migratory fish that swim back into freshwater to you! An ecosystem where the food chain accommodates us perfectly, and where fish oil is an intrinsic part of fish. Omega 3 and omega 6 intake is balanced and is complemented by seasonal fruit, leafy greens and wild game. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, we didn’t remain paleo hunter-gatherers forever. We settled down, over-fished, and started intensive fish farms to make up for it. However, like mass produced grains and meat, fish farming techniques had their drawbacks: without the open water and the presence of plants and plankton, natural fish oil production was compromised.
This is also where the omega 3/omega 6 balance comes in. Omega 6 fatty acid is something you can get from grain and bean oils as well as from fish. As such, since our switch from a paleo diet to a farmed grain-intensive one, we’ve been getting a surplus of omega 6 in our systems. On the other hand, omega 3 fatty acid comes specifically from fish breaking down the fats from its algal food, and, without those, we get almost no omega 3! Over just a few decades, we’ve lost an integral part of our natural paleo diet, and ever since we’ve come to know about it, we’ve been dousing ourselves— and our farmed fish— in extracted, distilled omega 3-rich oil to repay that debt.
In the process, we’ve forgotten a small but critical detail: fish oil isn’t exclusively omega-3 fatty acid. If you want to make sense of its use from a paleo perspective, you’ll have to look at omega-3 alongside its fellow essential molecule, the more notorious omega-6; and see the good and bad in both.
The Famous Omega 3 Fatty Acid
Omega 3, as used by humans, is of two types: EHA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DPA (docosahexaenoic acid). We get them from our oily fish who metabolize them from the shorter chain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) obtained from photosynthetic organisms (Remember? The green algae and phytoplankton). They are polyunsaturated fats that break down easily in our intestines, and are used to aid cell growth, immune systems and brain development – particularly DHA.
A significant benefit of omega 3 is that it is anti-inflammatory: it prevents and regulates the swelling and incapacitation of our tissues when we’ve been injured or infected. That doesn’t sound like much at first glance; but chronic inflammation is the basis for a host of disorders, from bowel irritation and arthritis to allergies and asthma. Inflammation can even lead to your cells becoming cancerous
As such, the ‘reemerged’ omega 3 in our diets is viewed as a bit of a cure-all. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to get natural omega 3 from wild fish— it’s expensive and unsustainable, and trumped by farmed alternatives. We also don’t want to eat larger fish because they may have higher concentrations of the toxins that our sewerage sends to the sea. What we’ve done instead is extracted the oils from wild-caught fish and purified it.
According to the FAO, over 50% of all that processed fish oil is used in commercial fish food— so we basically feed our mass-produced salmon and herring the oil that they were supposed to be metabolizing in the first place. (A little redundant, if you ask me.) The rest is bottled or put into capsules for our consumption. It’s not 100% paleo but it’s economically viable.
However, we can’t pop omega-3 capsules whenever we like. DPA has blood-thinning properties, which is great if you suffer from hypertension. However, if you’re already on medication, you can’t have as much as the average person; you don’t want a dizzying drop in your blood pressure. Also, thinner blood means fewer blood clots. That might mean a lower chance of thrombosis and clots in the brain; but too much DPA can actually instigate hemorrhaging and arterial leaks.
As you can see, Omega 3 in excess is not all sunshine and butterflies.
After all, as wonderful as its effects may be, omega 3 doesn’t work alone. This is where omega 6 comes in.
The Infamous Omega 6 Fatty Acid
We treat omega 6 as omega 3’s evil sibling. It may be an essential fatty acid present in fish oil but the resemblance ends there. Omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, which can spell physiological disaster. Also, they are as abundant as omega 3 is rare these days: you can find these fatty acids in grains, nuts and vegetable oils. Thanks to them, we end up getting 10 to 30 times the amount of omega 6, in proportion to omega 3. Considering how both grains and bean oils are enemies of the paleo diet, you’d think we can do without omega 6 for a while.
However, it’s still an essential fatty acid, and it’s still something our paleo ancestors needed in their fish oil, albeit in smaller helpings. And, as strange as it may sound, its inflammatory properties are something we need too.
Inflammation isn’t a disorder in itself; it’s a natural response. When you injure yourself or get an infection, the affected region swells up and essentially cut itself off from normal bodily activity to allow our immune system to work and our wounds or diseases to heal. Ideally, the inflammation lasts only as long as the infection— that’s why we associate the two. It’s the red light we need to start the healing process.
However inflammation needs to be strictly monitored. Without anti-inflammatory agents and proper treatment, the inflammation might spread and get worse. The exposure to pathogens and pollutants doesn’t help. With an excess of omega 6, especially in allergenic grain products, you can imagine how much damage we’ve done to our bodies, and why we’re so desperate to correct it.
So the bad rap of omega 6 isn’t from the acid itself, it’s from the excess of it, recently increased by the commercial popularity of grains and beans. By over-consuming the pro-inflammatory omega 6 without the counterbalance of anti-inflammatory omega 3, we’ve turned a natural defense response into a chronic disorder. Excess of anything is vehemently un-paleo; and it’s a matter common sense too: if the ratio of one fatty acid to another is 30 to 1 where it’s supposed to be equal or less, there are bound to be consequences in your health.
Finding a Paleo Balance – How Much Fish Oil Per Day?
The Omega 3/Omega 6 issue is just one example of the dangers of excess and deficiency that the paleo diet tries to avoid. It’s also a cautionary tale against over-consumption. You could get almost 7 times as much omega 3 as omega 6 in the natural fish oils of salmon, herring and mackerel. Instead, farmed fish has to be fed omega 3 supplements in grain-based fish food, which just adds omega 6 and counteracts the goodness of the fish anyway.
However, you won’t get anywhere by switching the extremes either, so what’s the perfect ratio of these 2 essential fatty acids? There has been a good deal of debate on the matter but anything between equal parts of both and a 4:1 Omega 6: Omega 3 ratio seems to be the acceptable range. For the Paleo dieter, equal proportions are ideal since it helps to maintain your inflammation balance. You also don’t want to exceed the 3000 mg limit of omega 3 per day— anything above 5000 mg is excessive— and you certainly don’t want more omega 6 than that. You needn’t worry about too much omega 6 in the Paleo diet, though— grains are a big NO, remember?
What Paleo Fish Oil is Really About
Once you’ve gone paleo, fish oil isn’t supposed to be an independent food— it’s just another part of the fish. And it has to be wild-caught fish; that’s really is the most reliable way to ensure that you’re getting your oils in the right proportions, from exactly where they should be. Just like grass-fed meat, algae-fed fish is part of your paleo diet and the natural food chain. Grain-fed meat is not— and that’s why you’ll also want to avoid commercially farmed fish. Moreover, if they have to be fed their oil, how do we know that they’re accumulating it in the right amounts?
However, as I mentioned earlier, wild-caught fish isn’t always an option for lunch every day, unless you live along a coast or on an island. You have the ecosystem to think of too, after all. If acquiring fresh fish does become a problem for you, opt for liquid omega-3 oils that specify the amounts of EHA and DPA per dose. The capsule coating can be an irritant for some, and it isn’t as digestible as consuming the oil with your food. A spoonful of fish oil may not be the paleo way of ensuring your daily intake but it’s still better than grain-fed and antibiotic-treated fish.
Perhaps it’s a little sad that we’ve come to the point where fish oil has been dissociated from the fish itself; but it’s the paleo diet’s job to give you fodder for thought. Fish oil, not just omega 3, is a crucial paleo element we’ve been ignoring for too long— it’s the reason behind that childhood saying, ‘fish is brain food.’ Hopefully, the sooner we realize this, the sooner we’ll be able to restore the omega 3/ omega 6 balance and eat our oils out of a properly fed fish, and not a capsule or a spoon. That way, fish can go back to being brain food once again.