Alternatives to fish oil


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Another blog post on omega-3 fatty acid supplements got me thinking. Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent heart disease and have a wide array of apparent health benefits. The most common omega-3 fatty acid supplements come in the form of fish oil capsules. What if you're a vegetarian like me and don't eat fish? Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in other foods but are they as beneficial as those in fish oil?

Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms:
  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, sometimes called LNA) 
  • eicosapentanenoic acid (EPA) 
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)


While ALA is mostly found in plants, EPA and DHA are mostly found in fish. ALA converts to EPA and DHA in our bodies since those forms are more useful.

fattyacidgraph.gif

 According to The Vegetarian Resource Group vegetarian options include flaxseed/ flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans/soybean oil, walnuts/ walnut oil, and purslane. There is, however, no official vegetarian recommendations for Omega-3 fatty acids, at least in the United States.  This makes me think these options are not as good. And it's true.

The short-chain ALA does convert to the more useful long-chain forms of EPA and DHA but only about 5-15% is converted. The DHA-EPA Omega-3 Institute found that "the overall conversion efficiency from ALA to EPA plus DHA combined was estimated to be 12%"  Not exactly efficient (although the discussion notes that the conversion rate varied with each individual). 

While vegetarian diets are generally lower in total fat (1/3 less saturated fat than omnivores and about 1/2 less cholesterol), it is no surprise that they also tend to be low in EPA/DHA. 

A paper for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recommends that vegetarians maintain a nutritionally adequate diet to increase the conversion rate between ALA to DHA and EPA. Consuming foods high in ALA specifically is also recommended. 

Their general guidelines are:
  • A majority of the diet should consist of a variety of whole plant foods
  • Most fat should be from whole foods (nuts, seeds, avocados, soy products, olives)
  • When using concentrated oils, try to use those rich in monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, nut oils)
  • Limit consumption of processed foods or fried foods. 

In general, I found that there is no vegetarian equivalent to omega-3 fish oil capsules (that have the same effectiveness, at least). There are still ways to increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (and other "good" fats) with plant sources, however. 

3 Comments

I found another article that claims the same results you found, that the plant supplements are not as strong: http://nutrition.about.com/od/askyournutritionist/f/efa_sources.htm

My problem with this debate is that these are supplements, not actually fish and therefore I can't necessarily understand why taking the capsules would be a big deal for vegetarians. Perhaps that is ignorant of me to say, but I guess it all depends on why someone is a vegetarian in the first place. If it for environmental/protest reasons then maybe I'd understand, but if it is just for diet reasons then I don't see how taking the pills would be a problem. I know many people who don't like fish but still take the pills because of the health benefits. I guess it is a matter of deciding what is more important to you and what it is you need more. The pride of staying true to your vegetarianism without slightly cheating, or the health benefits you'd get from the pills.

Personally, I am a vegetarian for both reasons and I'm okay with forgoing fish oil because of the other benefits of vegetarian in general. Yes, it's not the full fish but it's still part of the fish... and the fish is killed to get the fish oil. This is why I wouldn't take fish oil capsules.


I should have added this to my original post but I found that scientists are trying to develop ways that would enrich meat, milk and eggs with omega-3 fatty acids. If this works, it might allow vegetarians to get more omega-3 (in eggs and milk). Fish (and fish oils) are a dimishing resource as well. Developing and using other sources besides fish would be a very good things.


I was the one who wrote the original post about the omega-3 fatty acids, and I found your take on what a vegetarian is to do very interesting. Although I am not a vegetarian, i can see why it would not be worth sacrificing your beliefs for a supplement. I found from my own research (mostly from this article http://www.fatsoflife.com/omega-3-in-fish-food-and-supplement.php) that the most alpha linolenic acid is from the plant sources, as you said.

The article later says that vegetable sources in actual food can actually contain a sufficient amount of this acid, but other elements of the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish are lacking. What i would wonder is, would be harmful to the body to take a higher dosage of the plant/vegetable supplement sources? (Along with a diet that contains the grains and other necessities you mentioned).

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