Spoiler alert: you don’t have to swallow horse pills filled with fish oil to get your omegas. In fact, you don’t have to consume fish at all, in any form. The hottest Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, has everyone talking and seriously questioning their fish-eating habits, and for those who wish to no longer support the fishing industry, it’s a relief to know that it is not necessary to compromise ethics for health. You can still obtain essential omegas without contributing to the environmental and ethical implications of fishing. Here’s everything you need to know about plant-based versus fish-based omegas.
What are omegas
Omegas are fatty acids that our bodies need to function. While omega-3s are most commonly discussed, two other omegas exist (omega-6s and omega-9s). Human bodies need to obtain both omega-3s and omega-6s from food or supplements, as we cannot make them on our own. Omegas make up our cell membranes, bolster mental and heart health, fight inflammation, and conversely, aid acute inflammation to help heal wounds and expedite exercise recovery. Along with a balanced diet, omegas are essential not only to live, but to feel our best.
Balance is crucial
Too many omega-6s may cause inflammation. Balance is crucial. The ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is between 1:2 or 1:4, according to Dr. James Loomis. Those who consume the Standard American Diet—a diet that includes animal products such as “lean” meat and “low-fat” dairy—typically fall within the 1:20 range as these foods are extremely high in omega-6s. Over time, this imbalance can lead to chronic inflammation, which is the precursor to chronic disease. When it comes to omegas, more is not necessarily better.
How many omegas do you need
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is no prescribed amount for omega-3s or omega-6s; however, experts have determined an ideal amount for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is just one of the three fatty acids that make up omega-3s. Unlike the other two fatty acids (DHA and EPA), ALA is mostly found in plants such as flaxseed, soybeans, and canola oils.
Medical professionals recommend 1.1 grams of ALA for adult women and 1.6 grams of ALA for adult men. There are no recommendations for the minimum amount of DHA or EPA; however, there is a suggested “not to exceed” limit. Experts recommend people to not exceed 3 grams of combined DHA and EPA per day, with no more than 2 grams combined from a supplement.
The difference between plant-based omegas and fish-based omegas
Fish and other animal-based omegas contain all three fatty acids—DHA, EPA, and ALA (the latter in smaller quantities). Conversely, plant-based sources of omegas are primarily made of ALA, and while the body can convert some ALA to DHA, the quantities are minimal. Because fish contain all three fatty acids, many assume that fish are the most optimal source for omegas. Ironically, that’s not the case. Like humans, fish don’t make their own omega-3s—they obtain them by consuming algae and plankton. Fish are just the middlemen that happen to come with toxic side effects (hello, mercury).
Despite the lack of significant DHA and EPA in plant-based omegas, omega-3 deficiency is rare in the United States according to NIH. A Stanford University study published in The Journal of Nutrition observed the effects of plant-based versus fish-based omega supplements by looking at the inflammatory markers of 100 participants. After eight weeks, researchers did not see any significant reduction of omega-3 levels in either group.
There is no conclusive evidence that suggests the plant-based diet is concerningly deficient in omega-3s.
The benefits of plant-based omegas
Unlike fish-based omegas, plant-based omegas tend to be very low in saturated fat and completely cholesterol-free. Both of these attributes benefit a healthy heart and promote less inflammation. Plant-based omegas also contain the most ALA—the only fatty acid experts have given a recommended amount for.
Environmental costs of fish-based omegas
In addition to health, plant-based omegas put less of a burden on our environment. Those who have watched Seaspiracy learned about the environmental hazards of both wild-caught and farmed fish. To get you up to speed, wild-caught fish contribute to a deplorable amount of bycatch. This means aquatic species such as dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, and other fish humans do not eat are accidentally caught and killed in fishing nets. Fishing also leads to a tremendous amount of ocean plastic pollution—it’s not straws that are clogging our oceans, it’s discarded fishing nets. Some may naturally believe farmed fish is the more sustainable option, but pollution, inefficiency, and environmental degradation exists in this industry as well. According to The National Geographic, disease is rampant in these concentrated aquatic farms. Polluted ponds are also known to seep into waterways and affect the surrounding land. Then there’s the land itself to think of—farmers can only go so deep—and the inefficiency of raising fish. Farmed fish are fed a mix of soybean and fish meal, meaning some of the fish raised for human consumption don’t go to humans—fish are bred to feed more fish. Not only is that unsettling, it’s extremely inefficient.
Plant-based sources of omegas
There are plenty of plant-based foods that provide adequate levels of ALA. These include: flax, chia, and hemp seeds; walnuts, edamame, seaweed, and in smaller amounts, dark leafy greens and beans. Some plant milks—such as Ripple, Silk, and Good Karma—are fortified with omega-3s. Finally, algae-based, plant-based supplements are another option.
Considering the array of omega-rich whole foods, fortified plant-based foods, and plant-based supplements available, it is not necessary to continue a fish-oil regimen to obtain your daily dose of omegas. Go ahead and exhale that sigh of relief (no more fish pills, yay!).
To round out your nutrition, look to our 22 Days Meal Planner or stock up on our smooth plant-based protein powder to keep your diet dialed-in. Made with clean ingredients like omega-rich flaxseeds, 22 Days Nutrition protein powder is a healthy addition to your daily routine. Drop the fish pills, and sip on something better.