The Importance of Omega-3 Fish Oil (& The Best Way to Get It)

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If you like to peruse medical journals in your free time (like me!), you may have noticed a lot of conflicting research when it comes to fish oil and Omega-3s. Even if recent studies aren’t your choice for light reading, it’s important to understand the implications of fish oil and omega-3 consumption.

What I take and feel good about giving my family has changed over the years as I’ve read, studied, and learned more. Read on to learn what I’ve found in my research and what I use now.

What are Omega-3s and Fish Oil?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Fish Oil

These terms are often used interchangeably in most literature but they don’t always refer to the same things. Fish oil can refer to any oil that comes from a marine source. This doesn’t differentiate the source, the breakdown of the Omega-3s (EPA and DHA), and doesn’t necessarily require manufacturers to specify the amount.


The group of fats known as Omega-3 fatty acids are well-documented for their health benefits. Sourcing and ratios are controversial, but more on that below. The term omega-3s most often refers to a group of fatty acids. The most well known, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are found in fish sources. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plant sources like nuts and seeds, though evidence suggests that the body can’t efficiently use ALA like it can DHA and EPA.

Why Omega-3?

Now on to the research…

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for many aspects of health, and many of us are not getting enough of them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should just start chugging the fish oil. Source matters and there are some big problems with certain types of fish oil supplements. More on that below, but Omega-3s (from high quality sources) have many benefits.

The University of Maryland Medical Center explains that Omega-3 fatty acids from fish may be useful for:

  • Reducing the risk of heart disease and causes of death associated with heart disease
  • Decreasing severity of symptoms associated with diabetes
  • Alleviating pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Reducing risk of osteoporosis and bone loss
  • Improving health and reducing symptoms for those with autoimmune disease
  • Helping those with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder
  • Reducing risk of various types of cancers
  • Improving cognitive function

As I explained before, there are two main types of Omega-3s:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in certain vegetable oils, walnuts, and some green vegetables.
  • The other type, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in fatty fish.

The body can convert some ALA to EPA & DHA but is not very efficient at this process, so it is important to also consume sources of EPA/DHA. These nutrients are especially recommended during pregnancy and nursing (and are in most prenatal vitamins) because only certain forms of DHA are transferred across the placenta.

Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 = Ratio Matters

Omega-3s are important, but what is even more important, is consuming a healthy ratio of Omega-6 (n-6) and Omega-3 (n-3) fats. In fact, I suspect that we will find over time that this ratio is the confounding factor in fish oil research.

Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are considered polyunsaturated fats because they have many double bonds. In general, we need much smaller amounts of these fats than we do other fats like saturated and monounsaturated fats, but they are still vitally important. Our bodies aren’t able to produce polyunsaturated fats so we must get them from diet (this is the reason they are called “essential fatty acids”).

Omega-6 fats are found in many processed foods, vegetable oils, processed grains, and soy. Omega-6 fats increase inflammation while Omega-3 fats can help reduce inflammation. Since n-6 fats are present in many processed foods, it is easy to understand why most of us get plenty of these in our diets. In fact, many people get way too much in their diets! (source)

The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats is thought to be around 1:1 (and not higher than 4:1). Most people are consuming much higher amounts of Omega-6 fats (up to 30:1). Higher amounts of Omega-6 can contribute to inflammation within the body and to disease.

Of course there are two ways to change this ratio: increasing Omega-3 consumption or decreasing Omega-6 consumption.

The Sourcing Matters… A Lot

Omega-3s (like all nutrients) are best obtained from food. In fact, the research documents a strong inverse relationship between fish consumption and heart disease and death. In other words, generally, the more fish a population eats, the lower its rates of heart disease and all causes of death.

The same unfortunately can’t be said about fish oil supplementation. In fact, this is where the controversy starts.

I have read studies that indicate that fish oil reduces heart disease. Other studies show it has no affect or may be harmful to the heart.

Some studies show that fish oil supplementation is good for the brain. Others show a negative effect.

Studies claim that fish oil helps improve insulin sensitivity and reduces diabetes risk. Other meta-analysis results show no benefit over the long term.

Ratio and Source of Fish Oil

In my opinion, the abundance of conflicting info indicates three things:

  1. A strong genetic component to fish oil needs between populations and people
  2. Lack of differentiation among types and qualities of fish oil in studies
  3. Not taking into account the Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio in the body

I strongly suspect that further research will indicate that the ratio is a critical key in understanding Omega-3. Getting the benefits won’t just be about taking a fish oil supplement, but also reducing Omega-6 consumption. This is one of the reasons I avoid vegetable oils and margarine at all costs. These are very high sources of Omega-6!

Best Fish Oil Source? Fish!

This may be shocking, but the best source of fish oil is fatty fish! Consumption of quality sources of fatty fish (like sardines) is the most well-studied beneficial source of Omega-3.

I’ve always said that food should come before supplements as a priority and never is this more true that with fish. If the budget is tight or you aren’t sure about fish oil supplementation, eating fish is a great way to go.

Our family incorporates fatty fish like sardines at least a couple times a week as a source of Omega-3. I order high-quality sardines in bulk from about once a month. We also order high-quality low-mercury fish and incorporate them into our diet.

That said, some people don’t like or don’t eat seafood. In these cases, fish oil supplementation may be helpful, depending on source, genetics and dose. Fish oil supplements are increasingly popular with concerns about environmental toxins and heavy metals. We still prefer whole-fish sources whenever possible and make sure to order high quality fish where metals and radiation aren’t a concern.

Fish Oil Supplements: What I’ve Used

This is where the waters get murky. I highly recommend doing your own research on any supplements, including fish oil. All fish oil supplements are not created equal. Certain forms of fish oil contain altered forms of Omega-3s and can actually contribute to inflammation in the body.

Here’s why:

Many Omega-3 supplements are in ethyl ester form, which is an altered form created when ethanol is fused with the fish oil. This creates an extremely pure fish oil concentrate, but not one that is very bioavailable. These types of fish oils are often hard to digest and can oxidize easily. The real difference, however, is in the digestion of these different types of fish oils. The natural triglyceride form breaks down in the small intestine and can be easily absorbed. Fish oils in the ethyl ester form are much more difficult for the body to break down and are not absorbed as easily once broken down. (source)

The natural triglyceride (TG) form is purified but still in a form that the body recognizes and can easily digest. It can be taken without food and doesn’t go rancid or smell strongly.

My Fish Oil Criteria

Searching for an Omega-3 supplement should always meet the following criteria:

  • Natural Triglyceride form of Omega-3
  • Concentrated doses of EPA and DHA
  • Sustainably sourced (krill oil populations are declining so I prefer sources like anchovy or sardine which are more sustainable)
  • Free of contaminants and heavy metals
  • At least 2 grams of concentrated Omega-3s without having to swallow a handful of pills

This Omega-3 supplement meets those criteria and doesn’t have a fish aftertaste. This is the one I take when I need extra Omega-3s.

Fish Oils & Omega-3s: Bottom Line

We know fish is healthy. Studies show a strong link between consumption of fish and longer life and reduced heart disease risk. Most doctors have suggested seafood consumption for years and the research backs this up. In the light of recent concerns about heavy metal toxicity and radiation, it is important to choose high quality seafood. Sardines are a great food source of Omega-3 and are inexpensive and easy to eat on the go. In fact, most fish oil supplements use sardines as the source. So skip the pill and eat some real fish! Cod liver oil has traditionally been considered a whole food way to get the benefits of fish oil as well.

It is also important to pay attention to Omega-3 and Omega-6 ratios in the body. Instead of only focusing on consuming more Omega-3, we should pay attention to the amount of Omega-6 we consume and work to get those numbers to a healthy ratio.

At the end of the day, more fish, more veggies, and less processed foods (with vegetable oils) are the way to go!

Do you take supplemental Omega-3s? Have they helped you? Share below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


154 responses to “The Importance of Omega-3 Fish Oil (& The Best Way to Get It)”

  1. Missy Avatar

    Do you have a recommendation on Omega 3 supplements for kids? We do our best to get it from natural sources, but I would like to find a good supplement for when we don’t. I’ve been using Nutrasea Omega 3 + Vitamin D this winter, but curious as to what you’d give your kiddies!

  2. Leslie Avatar

    I know of one that is liquid and lemon flavored. My grandkids love it! I add it to my green smoothies and shakes. Lemon vanilla….yummy!

  3. Leslie Lefevre hanson Avatar
    Leslie Lefevre hanson

    Missing info…there are 8 Omega threes that all work together. Also, how many toxins are checked for. One brand at Costco only checked for 5. I think it was GNC that checks for around 35 which is the highest I have heard of. The one we take is checked for over 260 toxins and gets their fish from clean water(yes, there is still a place!) and allows 0% of toxins. Fish are processed right on the boat because waiting to get to land brought compromises in the fish. People’s health results when comparing products are most remarkable. In an independent clinical trial, inflammation was reduced 68% in 8 weeks on a normal dose! Can you get any better than that?

    1. Emma Avatar

      Thank you! What’s the name of the one you take that’s checked for over 260 toxins?

  4. elisha Avatar

    hello, I was wondering what your thoughts were about taking both cod liver oil and an omega fish oil at the same time, or is it only necessary to take one of the other?

  5. Connor Richards Avatar
    Connor Richards

    HI! Ive read a lot of your stuff and it has helped me become a much healthier person, thank you!!? i take nordic naturals too and was wondering if it contains any BMAA?

  6. Eves Avatar

    Hi Katie I love your blog!

    I take organic algae oil capsules, they are where fish get their omega 3s from eating the algae! It is organic, vegan, free of contaminants and heavy metals and does no fish are harmed. It provides Dha and Epa, I am from the Uk and I order mine from a brand called together health. Have you thought about algae oil before?

  7. Anna Avatar

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention algae as a source of long-chain EFA. After all, this is where fish gets it from (they don’t produce it in their body but consume it from algae). It’s also more environmentally friendly (lower on the food chain) and potentially less contamination issues (the one I take is vegan and grown in lab conditions. Each batch is tested for EPA and DHA content, as well as other measures). This is also a form that vegans (and non-vegans) can take.
    Informative website though. Thank you.

  8. Laura Avatar

    I would love to know what is recommended for children, specifically a brand of Omega 3s that are well-sourced and have a decent flavor.

      1. Tina Avatar

        This links to Nordic Naturals omega’s… I’m guessing this is what you are currently taking but are there options for younger children/toddlers that you would recommend?

  9. Isabel Jackson-Alvarez Avatar
    Isabel Jackson-Alvarez

    I’ve found that incorperating Omega 3s into my diet has greatly improved my problems with acne. Do you have an suggestions for Vegitarian Omega 3s or some at a lower proce point than the one mentioned above?


  10. Kelsey Avatar

    I just bought New Chapter Whole Omega Whole Fish Oil. “nature’s profile of 17 whole omegas – 3, 5, 6, 7, & 9’s”
    I’ve never heard of anything other than 3’s, 6’s, and maybe 9’s. A gimmick? Or is there more to learn? I’m disappointed for two reasons:
    Even though it has less of the omega 6 I still feel I don’t need ANY help in that area and I wish it had none.
    Nowhere on the carton or the website does it tell you whether it’s triglyceride or ethyl (am I saying that right? Lol). The lady at the health store told me this was a REALLLY REALLLLLY GOOD one. At least twice.

    Then again, I told her of my distain for folic acid (vs folate) and she sold me a prenatal vitamin with folic acid in it anyway. I am probably returning/exchanging both.

    But here is my question: How can I tell if this omega product is in the right form? Do I really need omegas 5, 7, and 9? I am brestfeeding.

  11. dreama billups Avatar
    dreama billups

    I’ve been taking a great Fish Oil for last several months….so, is there any reason to add Cod Liver Oil (as I’ve read from you)? Should I take both? Or, decide which I need more & stick with one?
    Thanks for your input!

  12. Anna Avatar

    Hi Katie. Thank you for this article. I feel confused about the Omega 3/ fish oil debate as well. I have a blood clotting disorder and I read cod liver oil can have blood thinning effects. I have taken cod liver oil in the past but stopped as I was unsure if it was going to have a negative effect on me. Do you have any information as to whether or not this is true?

  13. Dana Ratliff Avatar
    Dana Ratliff

    Have you ever researched Artic Ruby Red Oil produced by ImmuneO Corp?

  14. Lauren Sykes Avatar
    Lauren Sykes

    Hi Katie,
    I am 6 weeks pregnant and have been taking the Fermented Cod Liver Oil you previously suggested, as well as Garden of Life RAW once a day Pre-Natal Vitamin. Is there a Omega 3 oil without a “natural flavor” that you would suggest me add to what I a currently taking? Thank you!

  15. Josh Avatar

    What brand of sardines do you recommend that are safer from metals and radiation? The ones linked in the article on Thrive’s website all come from different sources. A nutritionist I’ve seen that used to work with radiation is very concerned about fish sources in the northern hemisphere from Fukushima. Have you read anything about this in all of your research?

    Many Thanks!

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      Have a podcast coming out on this soon, but sardines are typically considered safe from most sources, as they are so small and all of the one’s I’ve seen tested have been safe.

  16. Kathleen Avatar

    Great information. Do the sardines you buy come in BPA free cans? I have read recently even those marked BPA free use other chemicals that are just as harmful as BPA.

  17. Bernadette Avatar

    I’m not sure if you’ve read anything from the Medical Mediums perspective, but because you have so many who look to you for assistance, I feel like this would benefit your wellness community. I’d also love to read your thoughts.

  18. Elizabeth Avatar

    Great article! I recently purchased the Nordic brand fish oil in liquid form. I have not tried it yet, your article has come at the right time. How do I learn if genetically I need the supplement? I don’t eat fish, it’s definitely not a favorite for me.

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      Some experts like Dr. Tom O’Bryan and Dr. Alan Christianson talk about how most of us need it because what is important is the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6. Since almost all modern foods contain a lot of omega 6, a lot of us need more Omega 3 to balance out. I’d do your own research though.

  19. Vici Kiehm Avatar
    Vici Kiehm

    Have you looked at purslane (pig weed as a source of omega 3?

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      I have, but from what I’ve researched, it is the ALA form and not the DHA or EPA the body needs. The body can convert it somewhat but it is a relatively inefficient process.

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