Ditch Your Fish Oil, Here Come Omega-3 Eggs

Much has been said about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Not enough has been said about where to get them. This post fixes that.

Little by little industrial food production methods have stripped omega-3 fats from our foods. With their role in health becoming more evident people are demanding them and the food industry is scrambling to meet the demand.

In this post I’m going to focus one of their answers, omega-3 enriched eggs. We’ll see if they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and whether they can make a difference in your health.

This post in video format

Omega-3:6 balance in health

Both omega-3 and 6 are essential fatty acids (EFA), meaning our bodies can’t make them from other fats. They are both essential for health, but the crux is that they need to be balanced in diet. They often have opposing physiological reactions in the body. Omega-6 is linked to increased inflammation and health problems whereas omega-3 is thought to have anti-inflammatory effect in the body.

The balance of these EFAs is important because they are, shall we say.. competitive. They depend on the same enzymes to work. So too much of one causes problems for the other one.

Though omega-6 EFAs increase inflammation and are linked to many health problems, we can’t say they are bad. They are equally essential for healthy skin and body as omega-3 fats are. Omega-6 fatty acids for example are used in skin barrier that protects the skin and prevents moisture from escaping. It’s the balance that matters.

The exact optimal balance of these fatty acids is not yet determined, but a paper titled “The Importance of the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio in Cardiovascular Disease and Other Chronic Diseases” reviewed published research on several health conditions. Here are some findings from the report:

  • Scientists estimate that balance of omega-3:6 in the Paleolithic era was around 1:1 – compared to 1:10-20 in most Western countries today.
  • Ratio of 1:4 was associated with significantly lower mortality from heart disease.
  • 1:2.5 reduced cancer growth in colon cancer patients, whereas the ratio of 1:4 with the same amount of omega-3 had no effect.
  • 1:2-3 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • 1:5 had no effect in asthma and 1:10 worsened asthma

It’s possible that the ‘ideal’ ratio varies between health conditions, and finding out the absolutely ideal ratio isn’t even that important. It’s more important to know that there’s no ample evidence to show that several health problems are improved when you reach levels of 1:1 to 1:4 (preferably to 1:2).

Omega-3 fatty acids in skin health

When it comes to studies evaluating omega-3 fatty acids on skin conditions, there’s not much to write home about. A handful of studies with mixed results. But there’s a lot of evidence to show it’s highly plausible they are helpful in many skin conditions. Mainly because they can suppress inflammation, both local inflammation in the skin and systemic inflammation throughout the body. Unfortunately we have to wait for research to catch up and give us a definitive answer. In the meantime, there’s good reason to self-experiment with omega-3 fats.

Just keep in mind that more doesn’t mean better. In one study they gave the participants 10 g of fish oil per day. This had a very small protective effect against UV, but what worried me was the fact that the skin showed higher levels of lipid peroxidation. In non-medical speak that means that the fats in the skin were destroyed. The reason being that omega-3 (and also 6) fatty acids are very fragile.

This is very bad because there’s good reason to believe that oxidative damage to sebum is the triggering factor in acne formation. No pimple forms without this initial inflammation.

Not all omega-3s are equal

Omega-3 is actually an umbrella term that contains several different fatty acids. The most common ones are alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are sometimes referred as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, they consists of longer chains of fatty acids.

Research has shown that while all omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial, DHA and EPA are more potent than ALA. For example the long-chain omega-3s can be 3 times more potent than ALA in suppressing heart disease.

Plant sources contain only ALA. Except for carnivores, most animals can convert ALA into DHA and EPA and meet their requirements that way. In humans this conversion happens but not very reliably. So make sure you get both DHA and EPA from your diet.

Eggs as omega-3 source

It’s no secret that moving to industrial production methods has screwed up many of the foods we eat. Omega-3 levels especially have nosedived significantly in the last 50 years. This presents a problem for the food industry. As consumers become aware of the health benefits of omega-3s, they start demanding more of them. Enriching eggs is one of the ways they’ve responded to the demand.

Let’s see what these eggs are made or, and if they are a viable solution to this problem.

The October 2009 issue of Food Chemistry published a paper titled “Fatty acid composition of certified organic, conventional and omega-3 eggs”. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. In the paper they bought a big bunch of different kinds of eggs from Sydney metropolitan area supermarkets.

They selected the as a normal consume would, by labels. Conventional eggs carried labels like free-range, cage free and barn-laid. Those are all basically for-marketing labels that don’t mean anything. Organic eggs carried the organic certificate seal. Organic certificate doesn’t mean the chickens were pasture-fed and roamed happily in green fields. It just means they were fed organic feed, didn’t get antibiotics and lived outside of cages (but still indoors in a giant hall).

Omega-3 eggs vs. regular eggs

They then analyzed the composition of fats in those eggs, and this analysis included omega-3 fatty acids. I pulled the relevant figures from the paper into this table. This table shows the amount of different fatty acids as percentage of total fat in the egg.

Percentage of total fat Regular Organic Omega-3 enriched
ALA 0.51% 0.5% 4.52%
DHA 0.85% 0.84% 2.05%
Total omega-3 1.36% 1.34% 6.57%
Total omega-6 15% 15% 14.8%
Omega 3:6 ratio 1:11 1:11 1:2

 

As you can see, omega-3 enriched eggs have almost 5 times more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional or organic eggs do. Their omega-3:6 ratio is also much closer to ideal, whereas both regular and organic eggs have absolutely horrible ratios.

It’s not surprising to me that organic eggs don’t differ much from conventionally grown. Already in an earlier post I wrote how there’s not much health difference between organic and conventionally grown produce.

To make comparisons a bit easier I dived into other reports and pulled out absolute amounts of different fatty acids per egg. For the sake of comparison I pulled the same numbers for different fish oil supplements sold at Amazon.com.

 Total per egg Regular eggs Omega-3 eggs Fish oil
ALA 12 mg 135 mg N/A
EPA 12 mg 35 mg 200 – 500 mg
DHA 26 mg 228 mg 120 – 250 mg
Total omega-3 56 mg 434 mg 500 – 1000 mg

 

The amounts of different omega-3 fats in eggs vary depending on the chicken feed. If the feed contains fish oil then you’ll usually see a bit higher EPA and DHA levels. In this comparison the chicken feed contained both fish oil and flax oil. But even if the feed doesn’t contain any fish oil the DHA levels in eggs remain at similar levels, because chickens convert ALA into DHA quite effectively.

Anyway, the take away from this table is that you’ll get the same amount of omega-3 from 2 – 3 enriched eggs that you’ll get from most fish oil capsules. One of the papers mentioned that 3 omega -3 eggs is equal to one meal with fatty fish.

What about low EPA levels?

The EPA levels remain quite low even in enriched eggs. I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Dietary intake of DHA is much more critical for humans. Humans, and especially women, can convert ALA to EPA. Studies show that EPA blood levels increase as dietary intake of ALA goes up.

Things that limit conversion of ALA to EPA:

  • Being a man – get some fish oil to be safe.
  • High omega-6 intake, excess omega 6 also inhibits absorption of EPA from fish oil. Here’s the competitiveness issue again. Excess omega 6 gobbles the enzymes needed to convert ALA into EPA and for them to function.

Fish oil substitute?

Can you use these eggs as your main source of omega-3 fatty acids, and maybe ditch the fish oil? I wouldn’t do that. While these eggs are quite high in omega-3 and have a healthy balance, they are also high in omega-6 fatty acids.

The issue is that the vast majority of foods are high in omega-6 and quite low in 3. To get to the ideal 1:2 (omega-3:6) balance you need foods that are high in 3 but low in 6. That’s where fish and fish oil come in. Flax seed is another good option.

I would see switching to omega-3 eggs as one of those easy wins in diet, but not treat them as your main source of omega-3s.

Health effects of eating omega-3 eggs

What about the practical effects of eating omega-3 eggs? Do these just look good on paper or can they make a meaningful difference in your health? Luckily some nice researchers did studies to figure it out.

First in line is this paper that looked at the effect of omega-3 eggs of heart disease, titled “Eggs enriched in w-3 fatty acids and alterations in lipid concentrations in plasma and lipoproteins and in blood pressure”.

In this study they asked the participants to eat either 4 omega-3 or regular eggs per day for 4 weeks, while otherwise maintaining normal diet. The eggs in this study were surprisingly high in DHA, but otherwise similar what we’ve talked above.

Here are some results, FIY the numbers refer to blood concentrations of different fatty acids:

  • ALA went from 0.1% to 0.9% (900% increase)
  • EPA from 0.4% to 3.5% (875% increase)
  • DHA shot from 3.8% to 8.9% (234% increase)
  • Total omega 3 from 4.3% to 13.3% (up by 309%)
  • Total omega 6 from 29.4% to 26.1% (11% drop)
  • Omega 3:6 balance from 1:7 to 1:2

This lead to measurable health benefits, such as drop in blood pressure and triglyceride levels (good for combating insulin resistance and hormonal acne).

Another study looked at the effect of eating one omega-3 egg per day for 24 weeks. During the study period omega 3:6 ratio went from 12:1 to 7:1, DHA blood levels increased by almost 200% and EPA blood levels by 50%. This study also showed improvements in triglyceride levels.  Yet another study showed decrease in inflammation levels after 6 months of 2 to 3 eggs per day.

Enough said about this. Eating omega-3 eggs clearly improves health.

What about pasture-fed eggs

I haven’t seen scientific comparisons of true free-range eggs (pasture fed chicken) to omega-3 eggs. Basically the term free-range is meaningless as it’s used now. The only thing it requires is access to outdoors. In many cases this means there’s a little fenced outdoor at the side of the massive building the chicken are in. Most of the birds never see outdoors, let alone forage for their natural diet (as the term free-range implies).

Whereas true free-range, or pasture-fed, is just what the name implies. The chickens do happily roam the green fields plucking out worms, bugs, seeds and whatever they eat naturally. This diet of course affects the nutritional composition of their eggs.

Unfortunately I’m not aware of any credible comparisons. The Mother Earth News did test eggs from several pasture-fed farms. According to their results, these eggs have quite similar total omega-3 content than enriched eggs. The report (PDF) didn’t say anything about EPA or DHA content of true free-range eggs. It also showed significantly higher vitamin levels as compared to conventional eggs.

Conclusion

We started this post by asking whether enriched eggs are a good source of omega-3 fats. And I think we answered it pretty conclusively. Enriched eggs make for a surprising good source of hard-to-find omega-3 fatty acids.

When chicken feed contains flax sees or fish oil, omega-3 content in the eggs shoots up by several hundred percent. It gets much closer to the ideal 1:1/1:2 ratio, whereas the ratio in conventional eggs is heart attack inducing 1:11. In absolute numbers 2 – 3 eggs gives you the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as most fish oil capsules do.

Studies have shown that these eggs not only look good on paper, but also provide real health benefits. Eating enriched eggs improves omega-3:6 ratio in the blood in a dose-dependent manner, i.e. the more you eat the better the ratio gets. These eggs are also heart-healthy, with studies showing improvements in blood pressure and triglyceride levels.

But don’t throw away your fish oil pills just yet. Eggs of all types and colors are quite high in omega-6. So you still need some foods that are exclusively high in omega-3 to balance your overall dietary intake.

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About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

10 thoughts on “Ditch Your Fish Oil, Here Come Omega-3 Eggs

  1. Hi! Great article, just wanted to let you know that I’ve been reading every article on your website and I LOVE it!! I often question some of the advice given on alternative health websites, this is absolutely perfect! An article on exercise (perfect time of day to do it, best kind to clear acne?, how you should deal with the sweat build up [does it have any impact on your skin, etc]) would be much appreciated! Love your site, just wanted to let you know that you have a weekly reader!
    ~Belle

    • Thanks for your kind words Belle! At early stages of a blog it’s sometimes hard to know if you are on the right path. My blog is somewhat different from many other acne blogs, so I’m not always sure people are interested in this kind of content. So it’s nice to hear it’s appreciated.

      I’m not going to make any promises about the exercise article. It can sometimes take me 3 to 4 days to research and write an article.

      There’s a book that should answer most of your exercise-related questions: Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. It doesn’t talk about acne, but it gives you good, science-based exercise recommendations.

      From personal experience I can say that sweat irritated my skin, especially if I allow it to sit there for some time. I wouldn’t worry about it too much though. I just clean my skin as soon as possible, and if I notice irritation, apply some soothing moisturizer. That calms down irritation for me.

  2. There’s been a bit on the news recently about studies in America linking cod liver oil intake to an increased chance of aggressive prostrate cancer. There has already been a theory put forward that flaxseed oil can increase chances of prostrate cancer. I was wondering if there is any truth to the studies and would the same apply to the use of Omega 3 eggs containing raised levels of fatty acids?
    It’s another case of thinking you are doing something healthy to find out it possibly isn’t.
    Also there have been studies linking males with severe acne and higher incidences of prostrate cancer. There’s a bit of scaremongering for you
    Do you think there is any truth in all of this? Or is it a case of some researchers trying to validate their particular line of study?

    • As usual, you can rely on the media make alarming headlines not justified by the data. Disclaimer, I haven’t looked at the study, just relying on what I got from these pages:

      https://robbwolf.com/2013/07/11/prostate-cancer-omega-3-fats/
      https://examine.com/blog/fish-oil-and-your-prostate/

      I’ve seen papers linking acne to increased prostate cancer risk. Again, I didn’t examine them in detail, but as far as I can tell there is some truth to those concerns. It probably comes down to hormones. As you know, acne is linked to elevated insulin and IGF-1 levels and those same hormones are also implicated in prostate cancer. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if men with acne had higher risk of prostate cancer.

  3. How does arachidonic acid factor into acne? Obviously eggs are a major source of arachidonic acid. Personally I have low levels of arachidonic acid, abnormally low actually, which is strange because the typical problem in the US is it being too high. I had low levels of EPA, and DHA was at a good range.
    To me it seems that the AA:EPA ratio is very important in regards to acne (that both are in good range and it hovers around 1).

    • I personally don’t stress too much over my AA and omega-6 intake. I don’t fully buy the paleo meme that omega-6 fats are bad. I understand that they can be harmful in excess, but I’ve also seen several studies where health metrics have improved when people eat more PUFAs.

      It’s hard to say what, if any, effect AA has on acne. It’s possible that when taken in excess, and you are low in omega-3, AA would have an inflammatory effect on the body.

      Interestingly, Wikipedia article on AA says it’s used in both pro and anti-inflammatory molecules. So it’s not quite as cut and dry as increased AA automatically leads to inflammation.

      To me it seems that the AA:EPA ratio is very important in regards to acne (that both are in good range and it hovers around 1).

      What do you base this on? Not saying you are wrong, I’m just interested to understand how you came to this conclusion.

      I don’t think scientists have really yet figured out the role EFAs and their balance plays in health. That’s why I don’t think it’s justified to make a big issue out of it.

      My view is that as long as you avoid processed and junk food (most of the time) and make sure you have some omega-3 rich foods in your diet, then you should be good.

      As to eggs being high in AA, that’s true, but it’s equally true that eating eggs has not been linked to any health problems, and increased consumption of omega-3 eggs has been shown to improve n3/n6 balance.

  4. In another post you mentioned that the amino acid leucine may play a role in the the development of acne, because of the activation of the mTor pathway. Since eggs are rich in leucine, should we have to limit the consumption of this food as well? I have been eating 2 eggs a day for the last 2 weeks and i was planning to up this number to at least 3, but then i saw your article on leucine and it have worried me.

    • Leucine activates the mTor-pathway when it’s combined with high levels of insulin. So if you moderate carb and sugar intake, eggs shouldn’t be a problem.

  5. Do omega 3 in the eggs really matter? Don’t the omegas get destroyed by the heat when you cook them anyways?

    • No, they can survive cooking the eggs just fine. I referenced studies that showed feeding people omega-3 eggs and other omega-3 enriched foods (like bakery products) increased blood omega-3 levels. So clearly they survive both cooking and digestion.

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