Should You Get Your Omega-3s from Fish or Plants?

By Jiri Kaloc

Omega-3s are really important for recovery, immunity and general health. Fish are often touted as their best source but what if you can’t or don’t want to eat them? Can plant sources of omega-3s do the job as well? A new study offers some answers.

Science established a strong link between omega-3 fatty acid consumption and a lower risk of heart disease. Research also shows that omega-3s are important for eye and brain health, immune function, and digestion. Most of these conclusions are based on evidence from fish-derived omega-3s. These are long-chained omega-3s called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Until now, evidence of the benefits of omega-3s that are found in plants was lagging behind. Plants contain the short-chain omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Kale salad
Can you get all your omega-3s from plants? © Profimedia

Plant-based omega-3s are good for your heart

A new review paper analysed all available data from previous randomized controlled trials and observational studies. The researchers found that an increased intake of plant-based omega-3s is associated with a 10% lower risk of total cardiovascular disease and a 20% reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease. Plant-based omega-3s were able to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and inflammation.

“People may not want to eat seafood for a variety of reasons but it’s still important for them to consume omega-3s to reduce the risk of heart disease and to promote overall health. Plant-based ALA in the form of walnuts or flaxseeds can also provide these benefits, especially when incorporated into a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, study’s author and Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences.

Eat both fish-derived and plant-based omega-3s

Researchers found that plant-based omega-3s are beneficial even for people who already include fish and seafood in their diet.

“When people with low levels of omega-3s in their diet ate ALA, they saw a benefit in terms of cardiovascular health. But when people with high levels of omega-3s from other sources ate more ALA, they also saw a benefit. It could be that ALA works synergistically with other omega-3s,” said the study’s co-author Jennifer Fleming.

How much of these omega-3s do you need?

It’s clear that even plant-based omega-3s are very much worthwhile eating. The authors of the new study recommend what a daily intake should look like.

“We were able to find evidence supporting current dietary guidelines that ALA should provide about 0,6% – 1% of total energy in a day, which is about 1,1 grams a day for women and 1,6 grams a day for men and can be incorporated into the diet with foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and cooking oils such as canola and soybean oils,” said co-author Emilio Ros.

To put it simply, you should have about half a handful of walnuts (14 grams) or about 1 tablespoon of flaxseed (7 grams) every day. That’s easy enough to add to your morning porridge, smoothie or eat as a standalone snack. And there are other decent sources of ALA such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed, and edamame beans.