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flaxseed oil v fish oil

Is flaxseed or fish oil best for you?

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They both contain all-important omega-3 fatty acids and they both play an important role in health and wellbeing, but there are some key differences between flaxseed and fish oil to be aware of. Here’s what you need to know.

At first glance, the biggest difference between the omega-3-rich flaxseed and fish oils may seem like the fact that while one comes from a plant source, the other comes from a marine source. And that’s true – but there’s also a bit more to it.

The first thing to know is that while they are both rich sources of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil isn’t simply a vegan or vegetarian alternative to fish oil.

Flaxseed oil and fish oil contain different types of omega-3s

The omega-3 fatty acid that flaxseed oil contains is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA for short. It is an essential fatty acid the body cannot make itself and so must be obtained through dietary intake. Taking a flaxseed supplement is another way to consume healthy amounts of ALA.Plus, flaxseed oil is also a good source of omega-6 fatty acid, another essential polyunsaturated fatty acid, and a monounsaturated fat called omega-9.

On the other hand, fish oil contains two types of omega-3 fatty acids, called eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. Your body can convert a very small amount of ALA into EPA and then DHA, but not in sufficient amounts. Consuming oily fish 2-3 times a week or taking a fish oil supplement can help boost EPA and DHA levels.

All three types of omega-3s are important for good health

While it’s the two types of omega-3s found in fish oil that seem to be the most beneficial for health, ALA still has an important role to play. On top of being a precursor for the production of EPA, some research also suggests it independently supports and helps to maintain heart and cardiovascular health. Plus, it can also support skin health when dietary intake of ALA is lacking.

For this reason, official Australian guidelines and the Heart Foundation recommend consuming a certain amount of ALA each day – roughly 1g a day for adults. Meanwhile, as well as supporting heart and cardiovascular health, the EPA and DHA that fish oil contains can also play a role in maintaining eye health, cognitive function and brain health, nervous system health and healthy skin. Plus, when consumed in sufficiently high doses, EPA and DHA may also relieve mild joint inflammation and symptoms of mild arthritis.

Therefore, it’s important to consume EPA and DHA regularly, too, and the amount will depend on the health benefit you’re trying to achieve. For example, while official guidelines recommend that women need a minimum of 90mg a day and men need 160mg a day, those numbers creep up to between 250-500mg of EPA and DHA every day if you’re supporting heart health.

The bottom line: should you take a flaxseed oil or a fish oil supplement?

Which supplement will suit you best depends on a few different things, but some facts to bear in mind include:

  • If you don’t eat two or three serves of fish, including oily fish, a week, or don’t eat fish at all, taking a fish oil supplement can help you maintain healthy levels of EPA and DHA omega-3s.
  • Different amounts of EPA and DHA may be required to help achieve different health benefits.
  • Following a vegan or vegetarian diet can result in low and even non-existent dietary intakes of EPA and DHA. Fish-free omega-3 supplements are available.
  • The ALA that flaxseed oil contains is also important for maintaining and supporting heart health.
  • Flaxseed oil contains other healthy fats, aside from ALA, that may also be beneficial for skin and heart health.
  • To find out more about which supplement may benefit you, ask a Blackmores naturopath for free, personalised advice.