Omega-3 fats: What to do if you don't eat fish

What are omega-3 fats?

Omega 3 fats are also known as “essential fatty acids”, because they are necessary in our diet.

The body cannot make them!

These fats are important for brain function (cognition and memory), anti-inflammatory responses, blood clotting, immune function and many other body processes. Particular omega-3 fats (DHA) are also major components of the grey matter of the brain, as well as the retina of the eye and the sperm of the gonads.

Omega-3 fats may also help in managing skin conditions (e.g. eczema), rheumatoid arthritis and mental health conditions, particularly depression and anxiety.

Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency...

If you do not get enough omega-3s, your skin will become rough, dry and scaly. Omega 3 deficiency can also result in low energy, poor memory, heart problems, mood swings, depression and poor circulation.

The different types of Omega-3s...

Omega-3 fats are found in their shorter forms as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and are used as an energy source by the body. They can also be converted within the body to the longer form omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and then docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

ALA is readily found in a variety of plant-based forms (see below) and therefore potentially may help to cover total omega-3 needs. BUT the conversion process of ALA to EPA and DHA can be inefficient, and therefore most people will require a direct source of the longer chain forms (EPA and DHA), potentially in a supplemental form.

The three types of omega-3 fats:

  1. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – found mainly in fish.

  2. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – found mainly in fish and seafood.

  3. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – found in a range of particular plant foods (and animal foods).

Plant-based Omega-3s...

ALA can be found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and wheat germ, as well as their respective oils.

EPA and DHA can be found in the supplemental form "algae oil". This is a direct plant source of both EPA and DHA and therefore a good option for those following a plant-based diet. In addition, algae oil may be an even better option than oily fish because it does not contain the contaminants that fish can contain (e.g. heavy metals like mercury).

EPA and DHA are the main omega-3 fatty acids your body requires to function properly. ALA is still important, but not as important as the others, and it’s easier to get in a well-balanced plant-based diet. If you’re not eating fish or seafood, it is likely impossible to get your EPA and DHA needs.

Steps to meet your omega-3 needs if you're avoiding fish

Step 1 - Make sure you eat a variety of plant foods that contain ALA.

These include flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, green leafy vegetables, soy beans and soy products, walnuts, wheat germ, and their respective oils.

Step 2 – Take an Omega-3 supplement (~300mg EPA+DHA/day).

Omnivore = Aim for an algae oil or fish oil supplement.

Vegan/Vego = Aim for an algae oil supplement. It’s a direct plant source of EPA and DHA.

Plant-based omega-3 supplements

Although those following a plant-based diet (e.g. vegan/vegetarian) can obtain ALA from their diet, the conversion rate to EPA and DHA is poor, and therefore an algae-based DHA+EPA supplement is recommended. All plant-based (vegan/vegetarian) EPA+DHA supplements are derived from algae instead of krill or fish.

Algae are marine organisms that photosynthesise, as in make energy from sunlight. Algae are rich in chlorophyll, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) as well as other important minerals, such as iodine.