Fish oil is marketed as a cure all for everything from heart attacks to depression and people are increasingly encouraged to eat fish for its many health benefits. The omega 3 fatty acids within fish are widely known to help human health, but less discussed is the reason fish have omega-3s at all.

What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3s are considered an essential fatty acid because they are needed for proper function of the human body according to the Harvard School of Public Health website in “Omega-3 Fats: An Essential Contribution”. However, humans cannot make omega-3s on their own – they must get them from dietary sources such as fish. The reason omega 3s are so useful comes down to their chemical structure.

Omega-3s are unsaturated fats. They have fewer hydrogen atoms and more double bonds in their chemical structure than saturated fats as J. Stein Carter of the University of Cincinnati-Claremont College explains in his 2004 article “Lipids:Fats, Oils, Waxes etc” . Having fewer hydrogen atoms causes kinks in the structure of the unsaturated fat making it less stable. Unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil and fish oil are liquid at cool temperatures while saturated fats such as butter are solid at room temperature. This property of omega-3s is very important to fish.

How Do Omega-3s Help Fish?

Steve Rybicki explains on the aquarium supply store Angels Plus website why unsaturated fats are so important to fish in the article “The Importance of HUFAs in Fish Food”. HUFAs, or highly unsaturated fatty acids, are found in the cell membranes of fish – cold water fish in particular. These fatty acids are important to keeping the cell membrane fluid – allowing important components to move in and out of the cell. The fatty acids in the cell membrane affect the temperature at which the cell will freeze, become solid, and stop functioning.

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Since unsaturated fats remain liquid at cooler temperatures it makes sense that cold water fish would have a large number of unsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3s in their systems. Rybicki goes on to explain that fish have the ability to change the composition of their cell membranes throughout the year – replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones as temperatures drop. Ultimately, fish need omega-3s as an antifreeze mechanism.

Which Fish Have the Most Omega-3s?

Not all fish have the same amount of omega 3s in their system. The Reader’s Digest ranks fish by omega-3s in its article “Omega-3 Rich Fish”. A few of the top ranking fish include mackerel, anchovies, and Pacific halibut. However, it is also important to remember the environmental impact of eating fish. Although bluefin tuna is rich in omega-3s it is also an endangered species – thus making it unethical to eat this animal. The Environmental Defense Fund rates the environmental impact of eating various species of fish in its “Seafood Selector” (Pacific halibut is considered an Eco-Best food).

Fun Fact: Cholesterol, Omega-3s and Polar Bears

Many people take omega-3 supplements to lower their cholesterol levels. Turns out omega-3s also help lower the cholesterol levels of polar bears. The conservation group Polar Bears International explains on its website under “Bear Facts” that these arctic marine creatures have lower cholesterol levels when dining exclusively on omega-3 rich seal blubber.

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Fish oil is marketed as a cure all for everything from heart attacks to depression and people are increasingly encouraged to eat fish for its many health benefits. The omega 3 fatty acids within fish are widely known to help human health, but less discussed is the reason fish...