Last week, someone left a comment on my Cod Liver Oil 101 video which said, “Flax oil is better for you – cod liver oil can raise your cholesterol level!”
This comment disturbed me as it is this kind of thinking that is stealing people’s health!
First, let me say that I am not against flax oil. Flax oil is a wonderfully healthy oil that is extremely high in omega 3 fats. The Scandinavian traditional diet even lauds flax oil as a health food.
Use of flax oil in small amounts in homemade salad dressings is a wonderful way to facilitate the proper omega 3/omega 6 fatty acid balance in your diet – a balance that should be in the 1:1 – 1:4 range, not the 1:20 – 1:50 range of most Americans! Using walnut oil accomplishes a similar goal.
Getting this fatty acid balance in the correct range is critical to keeping inflammation at low levels in the body. Overconsumption of omega-6 fats as is typical in the grain-heavy Western diet rapidly causes inflammation with a sometimes unpredictable mix of symptoms based on one’s genetic predisposition.
Flax oil has historically had problems with rancidity as it is such a delicate oil that should always be kept refrigerated and never, ever heated.
Modern refrigeration during shipping has eliminated much of the rancidity problems, nonetheless, care must be taken to consume flax oil only in small amounts. Overconsumption of polyunsaturated oils even if primarily omega 3 can lead to inflammation just the same as an imbalance in the ratio between omega 3/omega 6 fats that are consumed in the diet.
Despite the fact that flax oil contains a healthy form of omega-3 fats, it is still not a good substitute for cod liver oil and here’s why:
Flax Oil Does Not Contain Fat-Soluble Vitamins
Cod liver oil, particularly the fermented kind, contains an ample amount of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D and even some K2 known as Activator X when sourced from fermented fish livers. Traditional cultures studied by Dr. Weston A. Price consumed these fat-soluble activators at a rate 10 times greater than Americans living in the 1920s and 1930s!
A daily dose of cod liver oil is an important insurance policy for maintaining health as these fat-soluble vitamins supercharge mineral absorption in the diet and work synergistically to maintain immune function at a high level. Note the while krill oil contains beneficial omega-3 fats, it is not an adequate substitute.
Similarly, flax oil contains no fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K although for a different reason – because it is derived from plant food.
While some plant foods contain vitamin K1, vitamins A and D are not found in any plant foods and must be obtained from animal foods. Is beta carotene vitamin A too? No, it is not as is frequently and erroneously claimed.
The Omega 3 Fats in Flax Oil Must Be Converted
The omega 3 fats in cod liver oil are primarily in the form of DHA and EPA which are in a readily usable form for the brain and neurological system.
The omega 3 fats in flax oil are in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which must be converted by the body into EPA and DHA. If you have any digestive imbalance issues, which most Westerners do to some degree, the conversion of ALA into the critical EPA and DHA is unknown and more than likely insufficient to maintain health.
Therefore, it is risky to take flax oil and assume that the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is sufficient for your body’s needs. It is better to consume a high-quality cod liver oil to obtain EPA and DHA directly with no guesswork and finger crossing involved.
Natural Cholesterol is NOT Bad for You!
The comment regarding cod liver oil raising cholesterol levels is particularly concerning to me.
The natural cholesterol in animal fats like cod liver oil is very important for tissue repair and brain function which explains why cholesterol levels rise slowly as we age. It is important to note that women with the highest cholesterol live the longest! This is probably because natural cholesterol provides the precursors necessary for the production of natural steroids in the body that protects against heart disease and cancer.
So, what cholesterol is bad for us?
It is the oxidized or rancid cholesterol found in processed foods that should be avoided. Consuming oxidized cholesterol raises the risk of inflammatory conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
This is why the cholesterol in raw milk is healthy but the oxidized cholesterol in pasteurized skim milk is bad for you (added in the form of highly processed milk powder which adds body)
If grasping the difference between good cholesterol and bad cholesterol in your diet seems difficult at first, consider that coronary heart disease prior to 1920 was extremely rare in America, but during that same period, Americans consumed butter and cream with abandon!
It is only since the rise of processed foods and factory fats that gained momentum after World War II that heart disease, cancer, and diabetes rates began to skyrocket.
Therefore, enjoy a bit of flax oil added to each cup or so of homemade salad dressing, but never consider it an adequate substitute for your high vitamin cod liver oil!
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.