By now, you’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids. These can be found in nuts, fatty fish, avocado, seeds and other healthy foods. Omega-3s not only supply your body with healthy fuel, but they also have long-term health benefits. They’re responsible for reducing your risk or improving symptoms of cancer, asthma, ADHD, autoimmune diseases, depression and cardiovascular disease.
Does it matter what type of omega-3 fatty acids you consume? Omega-3s are found in fish, but they can also be sourced from plants, needs, seeds, algae oils and fortified foods. This is good news for anyone on a plant-based diet—but are all omega-3 sources created equal?
Here’s the difference between plant and fish-sourced omega-3s, and which types you should choose.
What are omega-3s and why do you need them?
Omega-3 fatty acids are antioxidants. According to Healthline, the “three most important types are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).” The first is found in nuts, seeds, algae and other plant-based food. The second two are found in fish. While our bodies can produce some omega-3s, it’s an inconsistent process. Therefore, we get most of ours from our diet.
Omega-3s have been shown to improve symptoms and reduce risk of diseases, including depression and anxiety, Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, heart disease, cancer, eye diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. They’re also crucial to supporting reproductive function and fetal development.
If you have any of the above conditions or are thinking about becoming pregnant, talk to your medical doctor about how much omega-3 fatty acids you need to consume. Individual needs vary based on diet and health factors, but it’s recommended adult men get 1.6 grams per day, and adult women need 1.1 grams daily.
Does it matter where your omega-3s come from?
Yes. The biggest challenge with fish vs. plant-based omega-3s is a matter of potency. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plants, but it’s less potent than EPA and DHA. To get the same effects out of plant-based omega-3s, you’ll need to eat a lot more of those foods than you would need to eat fish. Why? Because marine plants are typically the biggest source of omega-3s available. Plankton and small fish consume the plant life, and are then eaten by bigger fish—and so the cycle continues.
Fish are by far the most potent source of omega-3 fatty acids. If you eat fish, try to work at least two servings of fish into your diet per week as a baseline. However, some researchers believe that we should be consuming significantly more. “[I]n reality, it's the higher levels like 1 gram and up of these marine omega-3s that deliver significant heart health and other whole-body benefits over life,” says Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN.
However, there are plenty of plant-based omega-3 supplements available, including algae oil (it’s vegan-approved). This can also make dosage easier: instead of guessing how much fatty acid you’re getting in your diet, you can go by the dosage on the container. Keep in mind that the FDA may not regulate these products, so there’s no way to verify whether you’re getting the correct dosage.
Ultimately, you’ll get the best results when you consume multiple sources of omega-3s, including supplements. It’s typically more difficult for plant-based eaters to get the full spectrum, but algae oil can help ensure you’re getting enough.
The bottom line
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: get more fatty acids in your diet. How you do that depends on your diet. If you’re not opposed to eating fish—for instance, if you eat meat but just don’t like seafood—we recommend using a high-quality fish oil supplement. You’ll get the better benefits of fish omega-3s, while you can always supplement your diet with nuts, seeds, avocado and more.
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, consider algae oil for your omega-3 needs. You might already be eating plenty of land-based plant sources, but you may not be getting enough omega-3s for long-term health benefits. Algae oil helps bridge the gap without sacrificing your diet.
However you get omega-3s into your diet, the most important thing is that you find a way that works for you. Regular, consistent omega-3 intake will help you ward off disease and feel better overall.