Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, which means the body cannot make them on its own. Instead they must be obtained from the food you eat. The most well-known source of omega-3s is likely fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, rainbow trout, and sardines. They can also be found in fortified foods such as most milks (whole, almond, soy, oat), yogurt, orange juice, and eggs. Another source of adequate amounts of omega-3s is a variety of plant-based foods including nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts), plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil), and algae oil.
If you are unable to get enough omega-3s from your diet, supplementation is a popular way of bridging the gap. While fish oil is probably the most well-known supplement source of omega-3s, it certainly isn’t the only one. Whether it’s taste, side effects like fishy burps or bad breath, or dietary concerns such as fish allergies or a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you do not have to rely on fish oil supplements to get your omega-3s.
Flaxseed oil is made by a process of cold-pressing ripened and dried flax seeds, an ancient grain the Egyptians and Chinese used to use for healthy eating and for its healing properties. Though cold-pressing is able to preserve the abundant antioxidants in the flax seeds, the fiber content is lost in the process.
While cold water fish are the main dietary source of the long chain omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), plant sources like flaxseed oil contain the short chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The body must convert the ALA into EPA and DHA, and the conversion rate is variable and at times very low. If you are choosing to supplement with flaxseed oil it is important to be aware of the optimal conversion rate to ensure that you are getting the maximum benefit from the oil.
Canola oil is a vegetable oil made from the canola seed, which is derived from a plant that was originally made in Canada by scientists who crossbred rapeseed to remove toxins. There is no canola plant – the name canola comes from a combination of Canada (can) and oil low acid (ola). It is used widely as a cooking oil and is a good source of vitamins E and K. It typically contains twice as much omega-6 as omega-3, and is the second most abundant plant-based source of omega-3s next to flaxseed oil. At least 90% of canola oil is genetically modified.
Chia seeds are tiny oval shaped seeds that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants, and minerals. While they date back to the ancient Mayan times, where they were known for their health benefits, they’ve experienced a resurgence as a popular, nutrient-dense protein source. Chia seeds are used to make pudding, added to salads, and are a healthy staple to vegan cooking. They are also a popular addition to smoothies and are frequently mixed with water for the latest trend: chia seed water.
Soybeans are a high protein legume of Asian origin that have become a staple as a meat replacement for people who eat a plant-based diet. Soy milk and cheese are also used as a dairy replacement for those who have chosen a non-dairy diet. Though they come in many colors, the most well-known soybeans are green, yellow, and black. The green soybeans, also called edamame, are usually served steamed and eaten out of the pod. The yellow soybeans are used to make tofu, tempeh, tamari, and soy milk, while the black soybeans are simmered or fermented and used in many traditional Asian dishes.
Soybeans are rich in fiber and are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Walnuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, containing the most ALA of all the tree nuts. They are also a nutrient powerhouse, rich with antioxidants.
Algae oil is an excellent source of omega-3s, especially for vegans, vegetarians, and those who prefer a plant-based diet. Most plant-based omega-3s only contain ALA, but algae contains levels of DHA and EPA that are equivalent to those of fish oil sources. Some contend that the body absorbs omega-3s from algae more efficiently than it does from fish.
Brussel sprouts are a good source of vitamin K and vitamin C as well as fiber. They are also an excellent source of ALA.
Krill oil comes from tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans called Antarctic krill. Like fish oil, krill oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, though the fatty acids in krill oil are different from those in fish oil and may impact the way the body uses them.
All eggs contain some omega-3 fats, roughly 25mgs each of DHA and ALA from the chickens' natural feed. Given that most of the studies about omega-3 benefits suggest the consumption of 500 to 1000 mg DHA and EPA combined, the amount in eggs is inconsequential.
There is clinical evidence to suggest that EPA and DHA help to reduce cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Fish oil has been shown to lower levels of triglycerides and to lower the risk of cardiovascular death and abnormal heart rhythms.
Omega-3 fatty acids may support eye health. This study found that oral consumption of EPA and DHA is associated with a decrease in the rate of tear evaporation, an improvement in dry eye symptoms, and an increase in tear secretion.
The goal should always be to get your nutritional needs met with a healthy, varied diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, lean protein, seafood, healthy fats, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and dairy. But when it comes to getting your essential fatty acid needs met, the options might appeal to every palette. The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty, cold-water fish like tuna, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, and herring. And if you can’t meet your minimum intake of two servings per week, you can always bridge the gap with fish oil supplements.
There are plenty of fish-free options to get your omega-3s, but you need to know what you’re doing; it isn’t as simple as taking the vegan version of a supplement. ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA, but it is not a perfect science. Most of the ALA will be used for energy rather than being converted into EPA or DHA. You need to know how much of any ALA option you need to take in order to get your nutrient needs met. It may seem complicated, but it’s not that difficult.
Another option that seems to be gaining in popularity is algae oil. It holds great promise as it contains EPA and DHA levels that are consistent with those of fish oil.
As always, check with your physician or registered dietician before adding any new supplements to your regimen.