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Issue 122: Fish or Flax?

We hear a lot about fish and flax these days—and with good reason. They’re packed with good-for-you nutrients, including the noted omega-3 fatty acids. Why all the fuss about omega-3s, you ask? We can’t make these and other fatty acids, so they must come from our diet. The question that naturally follows is: Where should I get my omega-3s from?

Fortunately, you can make an informed decision when it comes to omega-3s. There are three major types of omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Fish and fish oils are abundant in DHA and EPA, while flax and flaxseed oil are brimming with ALA. 

Coldwater fish—wild, not farmed—provide an impressive natural food source of omega-3s. In fact, four ounces of salmon provides over 87 percent of the daily value, or DV, of omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary fish is so important to health, that the American Heart Association recommends one to two servings of fish per week for all adults.

In addition to their high omega-3 value, fish are also high in protein and provide vitamins D, B12, B6, niacin, selenium, magnesium and calcium—but beware of farmed fish. Farmed-raised fish can be genetically modified (GM), contain high levels of antibiotics, dyes, growth hormones, PCBs and other environmental toxins, including endocrine disruptors.

Wild fish are cleaner, have a higher protein and omega-3 content, but farmed fish contain more omega-6s. Then there’s the issue of mercury in fish. Even though mercury levels are lower in certain types of fish, some people choose to avoid fish altogether. Fortunately, for those who want the benefits of fish without the risks, fish oil is a viable option. Heavy metals and other contaminants can be removed from the fish oil, while EPA and DHA levels can be concentrated. This makes fish oil a pure and more potent source of those all-important omega-3s EPA and DHA.

Some more good news is that studies indicate that the EPA and DHA found in fish and their oils are more biologically potent than those from ALA. That’s significant, too, because most of the health benefits from omega-3s are because of EPA and DHA, not ALA. In fact, any benefits associated with ALA are believed to not be due to ALA itself, but through the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA—a conversion which is not highly effective, by the way.

For those who don’t like the taste of fish or who are vegans or vegetarians, flax is the seed of choice because it offers a high-quality, non-animal source of omega-3s. In fact, flaxseed provides a rich source of ALA, which is important because the human body uses ALA for cellular energy production. Generally free from contaminants, flaxseed is also a good source of protein, antioxidants, vitamins B1, B2, C and E, zinc, magnesium, lignans and digestion-supporting fiber.

It’s not surprising why many people turn to flax. For example, two tablespoons of flaxseeds provide over 146 percent of the daily value, DV, of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA. Likewise, flaxseed oil is the richest source of ALA.

Fish or flax? You decide the alpha of omegas.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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