Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and fish oil are two of the most popular oil supplements on the market. They’re both hailed for their variety of health and fitness benefits.
There are two camps on this, each supporting one of these supplements as the best choice. This hides the real science behind a lot of opinions and fanboy behaviors. This is one of the big problems when we have a rivalry like this – especially when people have their money in the products!
So, today, we’re going to bust through the misinformation and get you straight to the facts: which is better, CLA or Fish oil?
- What are CLA and Fish Oil?
- CLA: The Science & The Hype
- Fish oil: The Science-Backed Benefits
- How do they stack up?
- Which One Should You Use?
- Can You Take Them Together?
What are CLA and Fish Oil?
The most important place to start is that these are separate groups, but we consider them both to be “healthy fats”. They’re going to have some benefits in general, so you need to understand what they are, how they’re different, and why they’re popular.
Conjugated linoleic acid is a group of fatty acids, loosely defined based on their general structure. You don’t need to know the chemistry – you just need to know that it has gained popularity because it is supposedly a good aid for fat loss, and boosts muscle-sparing when you’re on a diet.
There are a lot of unusual claims around CLA, too, from appetite reduction to bone density. The problem here is that there’s not much evidence for these claims. But we’ll get to that – all you need to know is that CLA has some big claims about it.
Fish Oil is an umbrella term for Omega-3 fatty acids, often those extracted from fish. This is one of the most common supplements for general health and wellbeing and has its own rich history of big claims – from anti-inflammatory effects to joint health.
There’s far more research on the benefits of these fats – primarily because they’ve been popular much longer. Omega-3 fats are important because you can’t produce them inside the body, so you need to get them in your diet – boosting the popularity of this supplement.
CLA: The Science & The Hype
CLA has a lot of hype – it burst onto the scene with the high-fat, low-carb revolution. However, much like the LCHF diet, it’s been over-rated and this has clouded the science on the product.
The Hype: Things CLA Doesn’t Do
The main claims made about CLA are related to fat loss. The use of healthy fats for burning body fat has been a common topic lately with effective products like MCT and Coconut oil having a real, but tiny, benefit. The same claims are made about CLA: that it improves your physique by burning fat.
The problem is that the science simply isn’t there to support this use. Studies on CLA have shown unreliable or no effects on body fat.
On the other hand, there are a wealth of studies on areas of your health and wellbeing that CLA does not benefit, these include:
- Insulin sensitivity
- Fat mass
- Cholesterol (it has an overall increase in NET serum lipids)
- Blood sugar
- Metabolic rate
- Antioxidant effect or DNA/Cell protections
The Science: When CLA Might be Useful
This isn’t to say that CLA is totally ineffective. There are two key areas where you may see some benefits – though these still require more scientific evidence. They are fat oxidation and muscle-sparing effects.
Fat oxidation is the process your body goes through to free up body fat for use as energy. Muscle-sparing is exactly what it sounds like: you lose less muscle when you’re dieting. While CLA might not help you lose fat, it can benefit a diet with these two mechanisms.
The bottom line on CLA is this simple: it won’t help you lose fat, but it will make sure that you burn fat instead of muscle while dieting. This is still a small win.
Fish oil: The Science-Backed Benefits
Fish oil is a supplement we should all be taking. This is all due to the high concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids.
To start with, they’re essential: you can’t produce them in the body so you need to consume them orally. This is why most people take fish oil – to prevent deficiency and stay healthy. So, what are their benefits?
The Benefits Behind Omega-3 Fats
The Omega-3s in fish oil are crucial for the way your body deals with fats. It reduces the fats in your bloodstream, balances cholesterol, and reduces blood pressure – all of which are markers for heart risk.
It’s also a key factor in reducing the risks/symptoms of depression. This is paired with a crucial role in other mental health and mood disorders – low levels of Omega-3 are linked to:
- ADHD in children
- Mood disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Degenerative brain disease (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s)
Clearly, it’s a wide-ranging mental health supplement. This is because it affects a number of key pathways from inflammation to blood flow in the brain. If you’re looking to experience a better quality of life, it’s clear that fish oil is a great place to start.
The final set of benefits you’re going to see with fish-oil are general wellbeing and recovery factors. This includes general inflammation decrease, improvements to joint health and the recovery of stressed tissues, as well as improved sports performance.
It’s no surprise that this is one of the most-used, and most-studied, supplements existing to date. Unlike CLA, the scientific benefits of fish oil are well-evinced and back up the hype.
Why Fish Oil?
The reason that fish oil, specifically, should be your source of Omega-3 fats is also important. There are some plant sources of Omega-3 fats, but they’re almost entirely ineffective. There are 3 types of Omega-3 fats: ALA (the kind found in plants), EPA and DHA. The problem is that ALA is way less effective, and you can’t convert it into the two longer-chain, effective kinds – EPA/DHA.
However, fish can, and when you consume fish oil you’re getting a huge dose of these two crucial fats. EPA and DHA are the ones with all the major benefits for your heart and your head. This is why it’s all about eating fatty fish and fish oil supplements, rather than walnuts!
Cod liver oil continues to be the best source. Not only is it a great choice for fish oil, but it also contains vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is crucial for the health of the skin, eyes, and hair, while vitamin D plays a key role in hormonal health and preventing disease/illness.
3 key benefits in one cheap capsule.
How do they stack up?
When we look at the science, there’s a clear winner.
Fish oil – and cod liver oil specifically – is the better choice. CLA has all the marketing hype and popularity among so-called gurus (people on the internet who have a large, sensationalist following), but none of the science or results to back them up.
If you’re strapped for cash and you can only get one product, always go for the fish oil. It should be a staple in anyone’s diet and supplement routine, and it’s actually much cheaper. While shopping for a high-quality CLA supplement requires a little more information, you can get a high-quality Omega-3 or cod liver oil supplement at almost any store or pharmacy.
Which One Should You Use?
Nutrition is rarely a discussion of yes or no: it’s about what suits who, and when. So the important question is who should take each of these supplements, and when?
When Should you Use Conjugated Linoleic Acid?
CLA is a good choice if you’re doing fine for the money and you just want to make your cut as effective as possible. It’s not a first-choice supplement since many others have a better likelihood of improving fat loss, keeping you healthy, or preserving muscle more effectively.
Rather, we look at CLA as an adjunct supplement: it’s a good choice when everything else is already in order and you just want a small extra boost. It should be stacked with more-effective compounds like Creatine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine to preserve maximum muscle mass while cutting weight.
When Should you Use Fish Oil?
Everyone should take fish oil unless you’re already eating fatty fish (like salmon) every other day. It’s a crucial part of your health and well-being, and provides some of the most varied, and effective, benefits of any supplement on the market.
Take it as cod liver oil, or stack your fish oil with vitamins A, D and E for maximum health benefits.
Can You Take Them Together?
There’s no reason not to take these supplements together.
As mentioned above, CLA is an adjunct supplement while fish oil is necessary. The benefits of fish oil offset any real side-effects from CLA, and if you’re on a diet then combining the two is a great way to make sure you stay healthy, perform well, and keep your muscle all while losing weight.
As ever, we wouldn’t recommend CLA as your first choice of supplement, but if everything else is locked in and you’re looking for extra muscle-sparing, it might suit you.
The difference between CLA and fish oil is night and day. They’re almost entirely opposite: one is essential, the other is adjunct; one is for health and wellbeing, the other is for muscle-sparing when you’re on a tough diet.
Overall, fish oil is our winner – the science is clear on this. The marketing hype around CLA from supplement companies and gurus has set expectations too high, while results are modest at best. If you’re looking to lose weight then CLA won’t speed up the process – even if it does improve your outcomes slightly.
Fish oil is a key way of protecting yourself from the ravages of aging, keeping your mind sharp, and maximizing your sport/exercise performance. There’s a reason that it’s at the center of every elite athlete’s supplement regimen. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you!
Last update on 2021-06-25 UTC -5 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API - Details