If I eat a diet without any fish or seafood, like a vegan or a plant-based diet, where can I get omega-3 fatty acids? Do I have to take supplements? I want to transition my family in a smart way without any deficiencies.
In order to feel confident about your choices, it is important first to understand the role of omega-3 fatty acids, and why they get the attention they do in the health and medical communities. For the most part, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the optimal health of our nervous system, including the brain and our cardiovascular system, including the heart. They are often associated with being heart-healthy fats and reducing the risk of heart disease. For example, people with high triglyceride levels are often told to eat more omega-3 fatty acids. However, these fatty acids have also been associated with improving other areas of our health and reducing the risk of other diseases that are associated with levels of inflammation in the body. So while people often focus on getting omega-3 fats for these benefits, the truth is that if and when a diet is based on whole plant foods, it is by its very nature the most healing and protective against inflammation and all diseases. This is especially true for chronic lifestyle diseases, like heart disease, diabetes type 2, and cancer. Such a diet is already likely to be full of the right foods that provide omega-3 fatty acids and low or devoid of foods that cause inflammation and disease, namely animal foods, processed foods, and oils. Do keep in mind that this is not equivalent to a vegan diet, which can be low in whole plant foods and full of processed plant foods, which are inflammatory and can be deficient in many nutrients.
The next important thing to consider is what omega-3 fatty acids we are talking about, as there are several. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the key omega-3 fatty acids. Out of these, many whole plant foods, which I will address in a moment, contain ALA, which our body converts to make EPA and DHA under proper conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to, having a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids, which can produce inflammation in the body when in excess, and compete with the products of this conversion, leaving people with insufficient EPA and DHA. These latter two fatty acids are associated with fish and other seafood, as well as algae, which is where the fish get their omega-3 fatty acids from. However, the high risks of eating any fish and seafood today, which are not only related to toxicity, pollution, and heavy metal concerns but high fat and high protein concerns, as well as environmental and sustainability concerns, negate many of the benefits we think we get from fish. It is a much wiser and more prudent choice for optimal health to focus on whole plant foods and algae instead.
In fact, when we optimize our diet through whole plant foods, it is rare to ever have to consider a supplemental omega-3 fatty acid from algae, aside from perhaps during pregnancy or lactation. Fish oils should be avoided altogether. Time and time again, omega-3 supplements have shown to not be effective in doing what their makers claim, namely decrease heart disease-related risks. Most recently, a November 2020 study published in JAMA found that the use of an omega-3 fatty acid formulation did not reduce major adverse cardiovascular events in patients with high cardiovascular risk. Worse yet than not helping, omega-3 supplements have been found to increase the risk of other conditions, such as cancer.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in our diet for the best and most effective results. Diets for optimal health, healing, and prevention should have the natural evolutionary ratio of 1 part omega-3 fatty acids to 1 part omega-6 fatty acids. However, today most experts recommend getting much more of the omega-3 and eat three to four times as much omega-3 than omega-6, due to our poor modern diets and unnatural lifestyles. In practical terms, this means that we focus on eating some whole plant foods rich in omega-3 fats each day and avoid oils and foods made with or cooked with oils, which are all high in omega-6. Notice in the image below that each oil, aside from flax oil, contains a much higher amount of omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, if any. This is why flax seeds, but in their whole or ground form, not oil, are one of the top omega-3 rich sources in a whole food plant-based diet.
To learn more about the significance of this omega-3 and omega-6 ratio, as well as the omega-3 conversion from ALA to EPA to DHA in the human body, please refer to my article A Holistic Guide to ALA, EPA and DHA Fats for Healthy Eating.
Unfortunately, too many people and medical experts alike, believe that fish and seafood are beneficial, if not necessary part, of a healthy diet. However, as shared above, these are some of the riskiest foods today. It makes no sense to put something into your body that carries with it serious health risks when you could have benefitted your health in a much safer and more effective way.
What we must focus on, if we want to prevent inflammation and our risk of chronic disease, is the overall quality of our diet, and base it as much as possible on whole plant foods. People don’t suffer from a deficiency of fish or omega-3 supplements in the diet but a deficiency of protective and healing nutrients that only whole plant foods can provide.
Here are the top whole plant sources of ALA omega-3 fatty acids to have in your diet and consume on a regular basis. This means that you are eating several of them each day, and at least one of the top three as follows:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Cultivated leafy greens, like kale, collards, spinach, etc.
- Wild leafy greens, like dandelion, purslane, safe ferns, and mosses, etc.
- Winter squashes, like butternut, buttercup, acorn, etc.
- Organic soybeans, like edamame, tempeh, and tofu
- Brussels sprouts
Do keep in mind that extracts and isolates of any of the above foods, which usually come in the form of oil do not have the same health and nutrition benefits as their whole food counterparts, and are thus not recommended. There is a reason why nature provides us with a specific and unique whole food package of nutrients as these are all required to work together to provide us with the full spectrum of healing and protection.
Therefore to transition to a whole food, plant-based diet in a smart, sustainable, and effective way, and avoid any deficiencies be sure to focus on eating a large number of fruits and vegetables each day, along with a good variety of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These are the most nutrient-dense foods that offer us a wide variety and high concentration of all vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, aside from vitamin B12 and the hormone known as vitamin D. They are naturally anti-inflammatory and provide healthy carbohydrates, healthy protein, and healthy fats, including the essential fatty acid ALA. And always keep in mind that optimal health is most influenced by the overall quality of our diet and not any single food or supplement. The foundation of our health rests in our overall lifestyle, which includes our food, but also much more.