Could Your Fish Oil Supplement Cause Cancer? (Plus Better Alternatives)
For years, in the media and mainstream fish and fish oil supplements have been promoted as one of the “basic” supplements that most everyone should take. So it has always been amusing to me to see the surprised look on people’s faces, when they proudly tell me they take fish oil, that I don’t recommend it (for reasons we’ll get into below).
Fish oils’ stated purpose is as a “healthy” way to get your omega-3 fatty acids into your diet for heart health, brain function, and a number of other ailments. Fish oil has been made out to be a health superstar. But you won’t catch me cheering for it. Despite it’s favorable repute in the past, it’s still a processed entity that is not a whole food, can be derived from fish caught in polluted, dangerously contaminated waters, and even the so-called “clean” fish oil supplements may be rancid at the time of consumption.
A new side effect has come to light recently, that has tarnished fish oil’s reputation. Fish and fish oil consumption have been linked to an increased risk for prostate cancer in a study the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published online on July 11.
Fish, Fish Oil Supplements, and Prostate Cancer
Studies have recently shown a link between fish consumption and an increased risk for prostate cancer. Norway, which has one of the highest fish consumption rates in the highest in the world, also has one of the highest rates of prostate cancer. We’ve known about the link in Norway for quite some time (I mentioned a study about this in The Beauty Detox Solution in 2011), but the argument has gotten stronger since then, with studies in the United States and Europe finding the same connection between fish (or fish oil) and prostate cancer (confirming the results of a previous study). In the recent study, men with the highest rates of fish and fish oil consumption have a 43 percent greater chance of developing prostate cancer. Even worse, there’s a 71 percent increase in the likelihood of developing aggressive prostate cancer. The study wasn’t able to say whether the increased number of prostate cancer cases was linked to fish or fish oil supplements. One theory as to why fish and fish oil are linked to prostate cancer involves high doses of omega-3s causing oxidative stress, which is known to increase the risk of cancer.
Why Do People Even Need Fish Oil?
Well, the truth is nobody actually needs fish oil, exactly. But we do need to balance our diets, and our essential fatty acid (EFA) ratio. Because there are so many omega 6 foods in the modern diet (especially the woeful Standard American Diet), most people need to consume less omega-6’s and add more omega-3 fatty acids to their diet. That’s right, it’s an equation! Adding and subtracting to create balance. In most cases, people consume way too much omega-6s into their diet, largely from the vegetable oils used not only in cooking but resplendent in some form in virtually all processed foods. This does not exclude vegans, as highly processed, vegan foods like vegan butters, mayonnaise, etc. are made from a very high percentage of vegetable oil and are unfortunately quite popular in vegan recipes and restaurants. But the omega-3s aren’t as built-in or easy to eat without perhaps being more conscious of doing so… though they’re so simple to incorporate once you make the effort to do so and include them!
Your body can’t produce its own omega-3s, nor can it get them from omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s protect against heart disease and stroke, control blood clotting, reduce inflammation, help build cell walls in the brain, make skin soft and smooth, promote joint and bone health, and improve mental health. There’s no denying that omega-3s are a must-have, but you you should look to balance your EFA overall by cutting out processed, high vegetable-oil foods, and sourcing omega-3s from cleaner sources than fish oil pills.
Maybe Fish and Fish Oil Aren’t to Blame, But…
A 2001 study that focused on Swedish men made the opposite claim, that fish consumption reduces the risk of prostate cancer. That study found that men who didn’t eat fish had two to three times the risk of developing prostate cancer than the men who consumed moderate to high amounts of fish. That said, the study didn’t comment on whether the men who did not consume fish made any special efforts to consume omega-3 fatty acids or DHA from other sources, like nuts, seeds, and algae. Another earlier study took a look at the rates of other types of cancer and found that fish consumption seemed to decrease the likelihood of developing the disease, especially along the digestive tract.
But remember, most studies are very specific and can be skewed to present a given outcome. As T. Colin Campbell, PhD states, ” …a lot of so-called health breakthroughs are not nearly as impressive as their marketing makes them appear….One of the ways to do this (without outright lying) is to cherry-pick details, report them out of context, and imply a much greater significance than they actually possess.”
Since fish is one of the most polluted foods you can eat and fish oil capsules are often rancid and full of toxins as well, it’s still much safer to go the plant route of obtaining omega-3 fatty acids and DHA to keep your likelihood of developing prostate cancer as low as possible. Eating fish adds toxins like mercury to your body even without the risk of prostate cancer.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3s
If you’ve just been convinced to swear off fish forever (or just most of the time), you’re not out of luck in the omega-3 fatty acids department. After all, they’re essential for good health, so they have to come from somewhere! Fish get DHA from the algae they eat. I personally haven’t eaten fish in close to a decade.
And you can still get your health-promoting omega-3s from plant foods, and it’s much more delicious to do it that way than to swallow fish oil pills, plus you won’t have any more of those nasty fish burps that happen after you take the supplements. Some of the best plant-based omega-3 sources (Beauty Fats) include:
Flaxseed (one tablespoon of ground flaxseed covers you for the whole day)
Avocados (these are also a healthy source of omega-6 fatty acids)
Nuts (especially walnuts)
Dark leafy green vegetables (another reason to drink your daily GGS!)
Don’t Forget the DHA
When you consume plant-based omega-3s, your body needs to convert them into EPA and DHA fats (two of the most important fatty acids for good health), and the ability to convert omega-3 fatty acids to DHA varies from person to person. You can get plenty of omega-3s from your fish-free diet, but for a boost in your DHA levels, an algae-based DHA supplement is perfect. I like the Flora brand. This supplement is good for your overall health and brain and nerve function. Again, the reason fish are rich in DHA is because they eat algae. So why not go to the primary source and eat the algae directly?
Trade in the Fish and Supplements for Plant Sources
So do fish and fish oil supplements contribute to prostate cancer? Maybe. Studies go both ways, but the newer information suggests that they do. But while studies can always give conflicting results, the big picture is this: waterways that fish live in are polluted; so the fish are too, fish oils are often rancid, and fish oil in general is not a whole food.
I recommend choosing whole, plant-based sources of omega-3s, eating fish rarely if at all, and skipping the fish oil supplements completely, just to err on the side of caution. There are so many other sources of omega-3s that you can effortlessly add to your salads and smoothies (among other things), why take the risk? You can also take the algae-based DHA supplement. Here are some of my favorite recipes that feature Beauty Fat plant sources of omega-3s: