Omega 3: fish, supplements or brains?

We’ve teamed up with Dr Jenna Macchiochi – a Hove-based immunologist, lecturer, fitness instructor and keen home cook – to bring you a series of articles over the next few months explaining the benefits of including more fresh fish and shellfish in your diet and the science behind it.

What are Omega-3s?

Despite their controversial past, fats are essential for health. We may think of fat as being just one thing, but not all fats are created equal. Getting the right kind of fats in our diet is incredibly important for our health. They serve our body in three main ways:

  • Providing a great source of energy

  • Acting as the building blocks of our cells

  • Being the precursor for signalling molecules that regulate our immunity

Dietary fat also allows the proper absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Omega-3 fats are quite unique compared to most other fats in our diet: they're the GOOD fats that we should be welcoming into our diet due to their impressive health profile. Importantly we need to obtain them from our diet making them essential nutrients.

Why do we need them?

At first glance, omega-3s may appear to have seemingly miraculous health benefits:

  • Linked to heart health

  • Reducing susceptibility to allergies

  • Easing autoimmune conditions

  • Maintaining joint health

  • Preventing neurodegenerative diseases

  • ...even providing relief from depression

Whilst some of these claims might be sensationalised in the media, omega-3s are definitely emerging as a powerful tool we should all have in our modern day 'health toolbox'. Evidence shows they have broad purposes in our health as important components of all our cell membranes - keeping them fluid and able to do their job plus maintaining good eye health and brain function. Importantly they play a key role in our immune system:

  • Acting as a launch pad for specialised immune signalling molecules

  • Reducing unwanted inflammation, driving resolution and healing our tissues - whilst at the same time protecting us against the unwanted side-effects of inflammatory damage

The science bit

Omega-3s are a family of fats obtained from our diet, but some are more valuable than others. The three most important types of omega-3s include ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid):

  • ALA is mainly found in plants (particularly in nuts, seeds and seed oils). It's known as the parent one and considered essential since it can't be made by us humans. ALA must be converted inside our bodies to the usable forms of EPA and DHA. But this conversion is relatively inefficient and occurs only in small amounts.

  • EPA and DHA are the most bioavailable omega-3s. They're absorbed most easily from oily fish (like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and kippers) where it's found in the triglyceride form (especially fish roe). EPA and DHA are also found in the brains of land mammals, leading some to suggest that our in-land ancestors with no access to oily fish ate the fat-rich brains of land animals to obtain these essential fats in their diet!

Diet or supplement?

Even if you have no apparent deficiency signs or health conditions, a diet rich in omega-3s plays a key role in maintaining your overall health and well-being. Choosing fish over supplements has the benefit of higher absorption and appears to perform better when assessed in scientific studies of heart disease. Due to the nature of fish oil, it's highly unstable and vulnerable to damage during processing. Fish oil from supplements doesn't get into our body as well as fish oil in food form, plus supplementing might seem like an easy excuse for a poor diet.

Go for a 'fish first' approach

You're almost certainly better off regularly enjoying fish in your diet for your overall long-term health. And it brings added nutritional health benefits too. Fish is among the healthiest foods on the planet. It's loaded with important additional nutrients, such as Vitamin D, and is a highly satiating way to meet your protein needs. That's something you just can’t get with a supplement. And, with an abundance of delicious ways to prepare your fish, it's much more appealing than eating brains!

Dr Jenna Macchiochi has just published a new booked "Immunity: The Science of Staying Well" where she unravels the new science around immunity.

Don't miss a previous article that Jenna wrote for Nutritious Fish back in January, entitled "8 ways to achieve dietary balance", plus a collection of healthy recipes she curated which you can try using our fresh fish and shellfish.


Calder, P. C. (2013) ‘Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology?’, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75(3), pp. 645–662. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04374.x. Julia, V., Macia, L. and Dombrowicz, D. (2015) ‘The impact of diet on asthma and allergic diseases’, Nature Reviews Immunology. Nature Publishing Group, 15(5), pp. 308–322. doi: 10.1038/nri3830. Burr ML, et al. Effects of changes in fat, fish, and fiber intakes on death and myocardial infarction: diet and reinfarction trial (DART). Lancet. 1989;2:757-761. Kris-Etherton PM, Hill AM. N-3 fatty acids: food or supplements? J Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108(7):1125-1130. Visioli, F, et al. Dietary intake of fish vs formulations leads to higher plasma concentrations of n-3 fatty acids. Lipids. 2003;38:415-418. Harris WS, et al. Comparison of effects of fish and fish-oil capsules on the n-3 fatty acid content of blood cells and plasma phospholipids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:1621-1625. Yinko SSLL, et al. Fish Consumption and Acute Coronary Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis. Am J Medicine. 2014;127(9):848-857. Patrick, R. P. (2018) ‘Role of phosphatidylcholine-DHA in preventing APOE4-associated Alzheimer’s disease the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (’, The FASEB Journal. doi: 10.1096/fj.201801412R


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