If you’re not a fish fan, fear not as you can still reel in the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
Based on the many tens of thousands of studies on fish oil that cover all sorts of potential benefits, fish and fish oil supplements are considered the go-to source for obtaining eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in your diet. Still, we get it: not everyone wants fish or fish oil supplements in their lives.
For some, it may be too expensive or not readily accessible and for others it’s an acquired taste that they haven’t acquired. Or it could be fish allergies, environmental concerns, sustainability worries, or dietary lifestyle choices (e.g., vegetarians, vegans), or something else that keeps you from having a positive relationship with fish or fish oil supplements. If you fall into any or all of those categories, there are options for you and we’re going to lay them out in today’s blog.
Because even if fish (or fish oil supplements) are not in your health care picture, you’ll still want to find ways to add omega-3s to your diet.
Where Can You Find Omega-3?
First, a little context around the conversation. Here are some of the terms thrown around when it comes to talking about omega fatty acids, just so you have some basic facts.
- Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats, sometimes abbreviated as PUFAs and along with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), they’re generally recognized by those in the know (i.e., scientific experts) as the healthy fats, aka the “good” fats. In other words, you want them in your diet.
- EPA and DHA are two of the main omega-3 fatty acids. The richest sources of EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, Atlantic mackerel, and herring. Where is omega-3 in fish? In the oily part of the skin and tissues, especially in the kinds of fish just mentioned.
- The third main omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and that’s one of the alternative ways to get omega-3s without fish as ALA is plant-based. The research on omega-3 benefits associated with ALA is not as robust as that for EPA and DHA, but it’s better to get some of the benefits than none. And here’s a fun fact: your body converts ALA into EPA and DHA—but be aware that the process is not especially efficient. Some research shows that on average only 1-10% of ALA is converted into EPA, and even less into DHA. Because of the conversion factor, and because the science supports that the best benefits come from EPA and DHA, if you choose to pursue omega-3 ALA instead, be aware that you might need to eat a lot more of the foods that contain it (and potentially add a supplement) in order to raise your Omega-3 Index.
- What’s the Omega-3 Index? Thanks for asking. An Omega-3 Index test measures the amount of EPA and DHA in red blood cell membranes as a percentage of total fatty acids. A level between 8-12% is associated with better overall health. The Omega-3 Index is the standard measure of omega-3 status invented by OmegaQuant founder, William S. Harris, Ph.D., and other scientific experts and it is used not only in scientific protocols for researching omega-3s worldwide, but also is the standard used in OmegaQuant’s self-testing program for measuring omega-3 EPA and DHA status.
- If you’re a reader of this blog, you may remember that 3 is not the only number when it comes to PUFAs. There are also omega-6s, omega-7s and omega-9s. Like omega-3s, omega-6s are PUFAs, while omega-7s and -9s are MUFAs. All are good for your health, but they are not all, strictly speaking, sources of EPA and DHA. You can read more about omega-7s and omega-9s here and here. And omega-6s, well that’s a longer story. Read more here
At OmegaQuant, we generally talk about omega-3s and that’s our plan for today’s blog too.
Omega-3 Without Fish or Fish Oil
Back to the original premise of the blog—if you don’t eat fatty fish and don’t want to take fish oil supplements, here are some alternatives to help you get your omega-3s outside of the sea-faring animals.
Getting Omega-3 Without Fish Oil or Fish
- Algae—although algae are technically not plants because they lack the roots, stems, leaves and specialized multicellular reproductive structures of plants, you’d be forgiven if you wanted to think of them that way. They aren’t animals either and fall into a category of living things called protists. Algae represent a good source of omega-3 EPA and DHA and are suitable for vegans. For the most-part they live in water, all types, from salt water to fresh water and water that’s a mix of both. There are anywhere from 30,000 – 1 million algae species, but if you’re like us, you don’t have time to read about all of them. More simply, some foods rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA include seaweed, nori (a type of seaweed), spirulina, chlorella and sea moss.
- Plants—there are several plant-derived foods that can supply you with omega-3 fatty acids ALA, particularly helpful if you are vegan. Here are some foods, starting with flaxseeds which provide a hefty 6,000+ mgs per one ounce serving. You can eat flaxseeds raw but the stiff shell may make digestion a challenge. Instead, look for ground flaxseed or oil and mix it in with your breakfast cereal, oatmeal, yogurt or condiment, like mustard. You can also use ground flaxseeds when baking. Chia seeds are only slightly behind flaxseeds when it comes to the amount of ALA you’ll get. And like flaxseeds, they make good mix-ins to the same kinds of food just discussed. Walnuts and edamame are other good sources for ALA.
- Fortified Foods—don’t forget there are fortified foods, including eggs, yogurt, milk, soy beverages and infant formulas that have omega-3 EPA and DHA added. Check the labels on the packaging for more specifics.
- Plant-Based Oils—There are plenty of oils for cooking or salad dressings that can up your intake of ALA. For example, flaxseed oil works as an ingredient in a vinaigrette, as does walnut oil and hemp seed oil, but there are better oils for cooking. For instance, canola oil, which comes from the rapeseed plant, and some vegetable oils, such as soybean-based oils, are both options for vegans and also ways to get ALA into your diet.
- Other Oils—When it comes to adding EPA and DHA to your diet through dietary supplements, fish oil is probably the first thing that pops into your head. Some would say it’s the grand dame or reigning king of omega fatty acid supplements.
But it’s certainly not the only oil that is available in supplement form, whether that’s liquid, capsules or soft gels. Algal oil is produced from marine algae and like algae in food, in supplement form it’s a good option for adding EPA and DHA to your diet, particularly helpful for vegans or vegetarians.
Then there is this new kid on the block: ahiflower oil. Unlike other plant-based sources of omegas, Ahiflower contains SDA, short for stearidonic acid, the plant kingdom’s most potent omega-3 and the body’s natural and most efficient way to making its own EPA and DHA omega-3.
Back to omega-3 supplements EPA and DHA sourced from the ocean, you may not yet have heard about calanus oil, sourced from plankton in the North Seas and red in color from astaxanthin. You’ve also got your cod liver oil and herring roe oil (both specific types of fish oil). And then there is krill oil, made from tiny shrimp-like crustaceans known as Antarctic krill that feed on marine algae. With highly concentrated amounts of omega-3 EPA and DHA, krill oil made quite the splash as a safe and healthy alternative to fish oil supplements when it was introduced around 20 years ago. Today it is still a popular alternative for its health benefits and sustainable sourcing practices. (It’s not an option for anyone with seafood allergies.)
Omega-3 Supplement Tips
As you can see, there are plenty of options for selecting your omega-3 EPA and DHA supplements. The product label should give you more information about where the omega-3 is sourced from (e.g., fish oil, krill oil, algal oil, etc.) and the amount of EPA and DHA per serving/dose recommendation.
Aside from picking from capsules, soft gels or liquids, there are choices for physical-chemical properties that impact how easily your supplements are digested, absorbed and made accessible for your body to use.
While some organizations recommend consuming 250mg/day of EPA and DHA, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 450-500 mg/day of EPA and DHA. For some people, your doctor may suggest an even higher amount in order to reach the sweet spot an optimal Omega-3 Index of 8%.
The best way to learn whether your diet (including supplements) is rewarding you with reaching optimal levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA is through a blood test. And if it turns out you’re not, there are steps to be taken. At OmegaQuant, we offer three (here, here and here) simple, at-home finger-prick self-tests to determine your omega fatty acid EPA and DHA blood levels.
Shop your values. Be wise about the brands or retailers that you choose to purchase from. Be honest about what’s important to you: are you looking for the best price, promotional discounts, rewards programs? What about companies that place an emphasis on science, or sustainability, or choose third-party certification programs to supplement government regulations for supplements? Do you like to purchase from large, well-established national or global brands or do you prefer to support smaller businesses and entrepreneurs? In this case, there truly is something for everyone. Do your research.
And share with your healthcare practitioner all the supplements you’re taking and ask if there are potential interactions with your medications and diet.
Bottom line: When it comes to accessing the health benefits of omega-3s EPA and DHA, you have options. Talk with your healthcare practitioner about your personalized needs.