Omega-3s From Plants: 5 Ways To Get It And Not From Fish Oil

How to get your omega-3s from plants and not fish oil. And crucially why it matters.

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For many years, medical associations and organisations around the world have recommended that we eat more omega-3 fats as a way to improve the health of our hearts and brains.

Many of us have taken this to mean we should eat more fish or take more fish-oil supplement pills.

Yet, even for the hardiest of us, fish oil pills are not easy to stomach as many fish oil supplements leave a bad aftertaste or increase the likelihood of fishy belching.

Moreover, fish and fish oil supplements are neither sustainable nor are they as ‘healthy’ as previously believed.

Why is fish oil is not sustainable?

  1. Humans are overfishing the oceans,
  2. Humans have released far too many plastics and other chemicals into the environment, which end up in the oceans and ultimately into the fish (and their fats), that people eat.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (of the United Nations) “State of the World’s Fisheries” reports that nearly one-third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.

We simply cannot continue removing fish from the oceans at the rate we that we do.

Moreover, from a health standpoint, consuming more fish and fish oils are not as healthy for us as we once were led to believe.

While it is true that we need omega-3 fats are essential (we must get them from food) and needed for optimal health, we absolutely do not need to get them from fish or fish oils and may in fact be better off for it.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has reported that at least 30% of fish have plastics – visibly inside of their digestive tracts; and when fish eat plastic or smaller fish that have eaten plastic, they accumulate plastic-chemical residues in their bodies, specifically in their fats, AKA “fish oils.”

Every year some 8 million metric tons of plastics end up in the ocean, and this is increasing as plastic production and use increases around the world, which means as plastics photo-degrade in the oceans, fish eat their microplastics, storing all types of chemical toxins in their fats.

These toxins end up in humans when we eat fish, and some virgin, unrefined fish oils have been found to contain detectable levels of these toxins as well.

How much omega3 do you need to eat?

The European Food Safety Authority recommends .5% of total energy to come from ALA (plant-based omega-3) fats.

This amounts to roughly 1.1-1.6 grams/day – not very much.

Across Europe, the average intake of total omega-3 fats ranged from .7 to 1.3 percent of total energy each day, so most Europeans are meeting their recommended requirements.

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 1.1-1.6 grams per day of ALA as well.

There are no recommendations for EPA or DHA omega-3s (the ones most people typically associate with fish oil) primarily because we can convert ALA into EPA and DHA in our own bodies – taking out the middle man.

Given these sustainability and health concerns about fish oils, here are 5 ways to get the essential omega-3s that our bodies DO need, from plant-based sources that carry neither the environmental sustainability risk nor the risk of consuming plastic-chemical or industrial toxins.

Omega-3s From Plants: 5 Ways To Get It And Not From Fish Oil

1. Algal DHA and EPA

Algae forms the basis of the food web in the ocean.

Algae are also the primary producers of DHA and EPA (omega-3), and fish get their DHA and EPA from consuming algae and smaller fish that consume algae.

Algal oils with DHA and EPA are available for purchase in groceries and online. They are also currently in use in infant formulas. If they are good enough for your growing baby, they are certainly good enough for you.

It’s important to look at the label of any omega-3 oil you buy to find out the dosing, but the general recommendation for omega-3 from DHA and EPA combined is roughly 500mg day.

It is strongly recommended to have no more than 3 grams of DHA + EPA per day (either from fish or algae).

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2. Walnuts

Walnuts are extremely high in the omega-3 fat – ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid). They’re a fantastic way to get omega-3s from plants.

Walnuts are roughly 65% fat by weight and one serving of walnuts (28 grams by weight, 1 ounce) provides 2,542mg of omega-3 ALA, which is double the recommended amount.

Furthermore, walnuts have been associated with weight loss and smaller waist circumference in studies of healthy adults consuming healthy whole-foods, plant-forward diets.

3. Hemp

Hemp seeds are more than 30% fat and are high in both omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids.

Hemp seeds are also a great source of protein for individuals who are plant-forward.

One ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds contain 6,000mg of ALA which is nearly 4 to 5 times the recommended amount.

These seeds require very little water to grow and are therefore extremely environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Moreover, their high levels of fibre also aid in digestion and regularity. All good things in my book.

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4. Chia

I personally love chia seeds.

I like how they gel in water or nut-based milks for a creamy pudding-like consistency, I love how they help with regularity, and I love that they are an inexpensive and healthy source of ALA.

One ounce of chia seeds (28 grams) provides 5 grams (~5,000mg) of plant-based omega-3s.

They also contain 5 grams of protein per ounce, that’s almost as much as a piece of chicken!

Chia seeds are also environmentally friendly in that they do not require much land or water to grow.

5. Flax

Finally, flaxseed, known for its high levels of fibre and healthy fats is also a wonderful source of plant-based omega-3s.

One ounce (28 grams) of flaxseed contains roughly 3.6 grams of ALA which is cardioprotective (protective of the heart) and may help lower cholesterol levels due to their high fibre content.

Flaxseeds are also high in lignans which have demonstrated some protection against cancers that are hormone-sensitive including breast cancer.

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All-in-all, plant-sources of omega-3s are not only healthy, environmentally friendly, sustainable, and free from plastic chemical residues, but most (except for algal oil) also come with the added benefits of fibre, which help satiate you.

So, next time you’re looking for healthy omega-3 fats to add to your diet, look no further than the bulk aisle or seed aisle.

Dana Ellis Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD is a professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health
who researches climate change, food security, and vulnerable populations, and is the author of the upcoming book with Cambridge University Press: Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life, Out January 2022.