Are We Over-Dosing on Omega-3s?
Or, Why We Need Fish LIVER Oil, Not Fish Oil

Twenty years ago, no one had heard about omega-3s—we may have thought they were a type of car or a variety of Greek column. Now omega-3 (omega-3 fatty acids, that is) is a household word, considered good little guys that we can’t get enough of. As usual, however, the truth is more nuanced.

Omega-3 fatty acids caught the public eye in a cookbook called Nourishing Traditions (published 1996), which argued that the American diet provided an excess of omega-6 fatty acids with very little omega-3, and that human beings need to obtain these two essential fatty acids in a balance of something like 2:1, 3:1 or perhaps even 4:1—but not the 20:1 that comes with a diet based on industrial seed oils. The total of omega-6 plus omega-3 should not exceed about 4 percent of total calories—that’s less than a tablespoon from all sources in a diet of two thousand calories. (The other fats should be a combination of saturated and monounsaturated, with no set limit on either.)

The proposed solution in Nourishing Traditions was to avoid all industrial fats and oils (which tend to contain mostly omega-6 fatty acids, and damaged ones at that), eat liberal amounts of natural fats like butter, egg yolks and meat fats (which all contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, even if not pasture fed), add a small amount (emphasis on small) flax oil to salad dressings, and choose organic vegetables, wild fish and pasture-raised animal products over those that are conventionally raised—because the omega-3 levels tend to be higher in foods that are naturally raised.

But omega-3s found themselves in the headlights with the publication of The Omega Diet: The Lifesaving Nutritional Program Based on the Diet of the Island of Crete (published 1999, now out of print) by Artemis P Simopoulos and Jo Robinson.

Unlike Nourishing Traditions, The Omega Diet exudes political correctness, promoting a “Mediterranean Diet” low in red meat (because “saturated fats contribute to heart disease by raising cholesterol”) but rich in vegetables, legumes and sea food, with a grudging inclusion of cheese and eggs.

The healthy Greek diet of Dr. Simopoulos’ ancestors certainly supplied omega-3s in fish, eggs and green vegetables, but it was also rich in saturated fatty acids from organ meats, sausage, lamb (which is fattier and contains more saturated fat than beef) and goat cheese (which is fattier and contains more saturated fat than cows milk cheese). Simopoulos is a pediatrician, not a lipid scientist, so may not have realized that we need saturated fats in the diet to help the body put those omega-3s in the tissues, where they belong, and keep them there. Red meat also supplies zinc, needed for converting omega-3s into prostaglandins.

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Recipes in The Omega Diet do not stipulate that fish—especially salmon—should be wild-caught nor that the eggs should be pasture-raised, nor that the vegetables be organic; and most of the salad recipes call for canola oil, not olive oil. Canola oil has more omega-3s than olive oil, but certainly was not part of the traditional Greek or Mediterranean diets.

In any event, omega-3s soon became the nutrient du jour, with lots of over-dosing. I remember a mother who came up to me at a lecture saying, “I don’t know how I am going to get three tablespoons of flax oil into my baby.” That is way too much omega-3 for anyone—especially a baby! (Babies actually need a higher ratio omega-6 fatty acids, as omega-6 is needed for growth.) For children and adults, omega-3s should comprise about one percent of calories, which in a diet of 2000 calories per day is 20 calories or ½ teaspoon, from various sources, including seafood, eggs, vegetables, butter, animal fat and possibly oil, such as a smidgen of cold pressed walnut oil or flax oil.

We put a real emphasis on “cold pressed” for omega-3 oils, as the omega-3 fatty acids are extremely fragile, and rapidly oxidize in the presence of heat and/or oxygen. This is what happens to the omega-3 fatty acids in canola oil when it is processed and explains why canola oil must go through a “deodorization” process—to get rid of the smelly rancid omega-3s by partially hydrogenating them. In fact, beware any industrial oil that advertises a high omega-3 content—processing always destroys these fragile fatty acids, making them dangerous rather than beneficial. This includes soybean oil and hemp seed oil, in addition to canola oil.

Fast forward to the present: now the focus is on the elongated omega-3s such as EPA and DHA—both needed and beneficial in small amounts, but not in the context of a politically correct diet devoid of animal fats. Animal fats supply not only stabilizing saturated fats, but also an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid (AA). Much thanks to Chris Masterjohn for explaining the need for AA to balance EPA and DHA in his pioneering article “Precious Yet Perilous.” I’ve included Chris’s summary at the end of this blog.

At the Weston A. Price Foundation, the emphasis is on maximizing the intake of fat-soluble vitamins—vitamins A, D and K2—which Dr. Price found in high amounts in every diet he studied—whether that of the Eskimos in the frozen north, or the South Sea Islanders in the Tropics. This is why we recommend cod liver oil—not for omega-3 fatty acids, but as a good source of vitamin A and D. The omega-3 fatty acids you do get in small amounts of cod liver oil require balance from animal fats containing AA and saturated fatty acids.

People so often confuse fish liver oils (oils from the livers of cod, halibut, shark, skate, etc) with fish oils—the latest nutritional fad. Everyone is taking fish oils these days, and in so doing often over-dosing on omega-3 fatty acids.

Several years ago we carried out a survey of women who took cod liver oil during pregnancy, due to concerns that women taking cod liver oil might experience more hemorrhaging during childbirth. We did not find a correlation—but what we did find, to our great surprise, was that most women taking cod liver oil were also taking fish oil, on the recommendations of their midwives. Taking both cod liver oil and fish oil could definitely overload a pregnant women (or anyone) with too much omega-3! (One other finding: there were no cases of toxemia in women taking cod liver oil.)

Fish oil is a highly processed waste product of the fishing industry. You may not want to take it after reading how it is manufactured (see below). The omega-3s it contains will likely be highly damaged (that is, rancid) from the high-temperature processing, and fish oil does not supply appreciable amounts of vitamins A and D.

We do need omega-3 fatty acids, but not too much! Best to stick with small amounts of cod liver oil, to ensure adequate intake of vitamins A and D–in the context of a diet containing meat, organ meats, eggs and animal fats like butter—and avoid the popular fish oils.

FISH OIL MANUFACTURE, METHOD ONE: “The bulk of the world’s fish meal and oil is today manufactured by the wet pressing method. The main steps of the process are cooking for coagulation of the protein thereby liberating bound water and oil, separation by pressing of the coagulate yielding a solid phase (presscake) containing 60-80% of the oil-free dry matter (protein, bones) and oil, and a liquid phase (press liquor) containing water and the rest of the solids (oil, dissolved and suspended protein, vitamins and minerals). The main part of the sludge in the press liquor is removed by centrifugation in a decanter and the oil is subsequently removed by centrifuge. The stickwater is concentrated in multi-effect evaporators and the concentrate is thoroughly mixed with the presscake, which is then dehydrated usually by two-stage drying. The dried material is milled and stored in bags or in bulk. The oil is stored in tanks. . . . An important prerequisite for efficient [oil] separation is high temperature, implying that the press liquor should be reheated to 90°-95°C before entering the centrifuges. This applies to sludge removal as well as to separation of oil and water. . . Oil polishing, carried out in special separators, is the final refining step done at the factory before the oil is pumped into storage. Polishing is facilitated by using hot water, which extracts impurities from the oil and thus ensures stability during storage. . . . good temperature control is required; the temperature of the feed should be maintained at about 95°C, but not less than 90°C” (The Production of Fish Meal and Oil).

FISH OIL MANUFACTURE, METHOD TWO (We are not making this up!): “Phospholipid-deprived fish oil is obtained by mixing fish oil with water and a monosodium glutamate (MSG) by-product with stirring, fermenting the mixture in the presence of urea, processing the mixture with steam, and centrifuging the mixture to separate water and phospholipids from the fish oil. Further steps are neutralizing the separated fish oil with NaOH [caustic lye], washing and drying the washed fish oil in vacuum; mixing the dehydrated fish oil with powders of earthworm excrement, subjecting the mixture to reaction at least 30 °C or higher for 0.5-1 hour, bleaching the fish oil absorbed into the earthworm excrement powders by use of activated clay, and filtering the bleached fish oil through a filter, and deodorizing the bleached and filtered fish oil under a steam atmosphere in a high vacuum, deodorizing apparatus, cooling and filtering the fish oil and packaging it into a closed vessel. The refined fish oil is significantly improved in acid value and peroxide value” (Method for Manufacturing Refined Fish Oil).

By Chris Masterjohn, PhD

  • The primary essential fatty acids are the omega-6 arachidonic acid and the omega-3 DHA.
  • Arachidonic acid is found in liver, egg yolks, and other fats from land animals, and in small amounts in seafood. DHA is found in cod liver oil, fatty fish, and in smaller amounts in the organs and fats of land animals.
  • Symptoms of arachidonic acid deficiency include dry, scaly and itchy skin, hair loss, dandruff, reproductive difficulties, gastrointestinal disturbances, and food intolerances. Symptoms of DHA deficiency include numbness, tingling, weakness, pain, psychological disturbances, poor cognitive function, difficulty learning, and poor visual acuity. Deficiencies of both fatty acids contribute to poor growth, poor immunity, and inflammation.
  • The requirement for essential fatty acids is likely to be well below 0.1 percent of calories on a diet that is devoid of refined sugar and rancid vegetable oils, low in polyunsaturated vegetable oils, adequate in protein and total energy, and rich in vitamin B6, biotin, calcium, magnesium, and fresh, whole foods abundant in natural antioxidants.
  • The requirement for essential fatty acids is lowest in healthy adults and highest in infants and growing children, pregnant and lactating women, bodybuilders, people recovering from injury, and people with chronic disease. Alcoholism, diabetes, insulin resistance, certain genetic variations, and strict vegetarianism may make someone more likely to become deficient. Additional liver, egg yolks, and cod liver oil can be used to correct deficiencies.
  • Excess linoleic acid from vegetable oils can cause a deficiency in DHA. An excess of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA from fish and cod liver oil can cause a deficiency in arachidonic acid. For this reason, cod liver oil should be used in moderation and in combination with a diet rich in egg yolks and organ meats.
  • Essential fatty acids are vulnerable to a process called oxidation, which can cause cellular damage.
  • Replacing traditional animal fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils may increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and total mortality.
  • One gram per day of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil reduces cardiovascular mortality in patients with chronic heart failure or who have recently had a heart attack. However, fish oil may increase cardiovascular and total mortality, especially when used for more than four years in combination with a standard modern diet.
  • The liberal use of organ meats and egg yolks combined with small amounts of cod liver oil renders the essential fatty acids safe and health-promoting.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is your source for accurate information on fat-soluble vitamins and on the safe intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Members receive a quarterly journal that keeps them up to date on the scientific validation of traditional foodways. Please join our community by visiting and clicking on Join Now.

Author: Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is best known as the author of Nourishing Traditions®: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels.

15 thoughts on “Are We Over-Dosing on Omega-3s?
Or, Why We Need Fish LIVER Oil, Not Fish Oil”

  1. Thank you Sally for taking the time to start a blog. I met you in Pittsburgh during your seminar at the ACRES conference. Love your book.

  2. Thanks for the very interesting read. Would you be able to comment on how Krill Oil measures up – why you may or may not want to include this in addition to Vitamin D3 & K2.

  3. Just read your new book and loved it. I want to start incorporating cod liver oil in our family diet. We have been taking vitamin D3 capsules (we live in Pacific Northwest– little winter sun), while I can see that cod liver oil is superior, do you feel the remaining D3 capsules are best off tossed in the trash? I hate the idea of doing something detrimental by continuing their use.
    Also, will you please share the brand of cod liver oil you like to take?
    Thank you so much for all the help you have already provided!

    1. HI Ronda,

      Yes, you can get in trouble with taking just D3–you need a good source of vitamin A, like liver, at the same time.

      I take the Green Pasture fermented cod liver oil. Best to use the Weston A. Price Foundation shopping guide for our recommendations–we have three in the Best category.

      Sincerely, Sally

  4. Hi Sally,
    I have just purchased your book and am so glad to have found it!
    I wanted to ask what your position on using protein powder is? Are there any safe ones out there?

    1. We never recommend protein powders. Soy protein is full of estrogens and can cause thyroid damage; bean proteins are very hard to digest; whey proteins are fragile and damaged by the powdering process, so the body has to mount an immune response.

      So each of these has individual problems, but there is a problem with eating too much protein in general. We don’t need more than 15 percent of our calories as protein and with the powders you can be getting up to 40 percent protein in the diet. This is extremely hard on the kidneys. Also, the body must use up vitamin A to assimilate protein, so all that protein will definitely cause a vitamin A deficiency.

      We need protein but only in moderate amounts. We need to eat protein with fat (so whole milk, meat with fat, whole eggs, etc) so we get the vitamin A needed to assimilate it. One rule you find throughout traditional cultures is that they never ate lean meat! And protein powders are “lean meat” on steroids. I discuss the problem of lean protein in my books Nourishing Fats and Nourishing Diets.

  5. Hi Sally, could I get some of the needed D vitamins and omega-3 through sardines? I’ve really come to enjoy a sardine sandwich on sourdough bread.

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