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Are Plant-Based Omega-3s as Beneficial as the Omega-3s in Fish Oil?

Plant-Based Omega 3's

Omega-3s, usually in the long-chain form, are one of the most popular supplements people take for heart health. Long-chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA, have anti-inflammatory benefits and inflammation is a driving force behind heart attacks because it damages the walls of blood vessels and disrupts their function. In turn, this increases the risk of blood clots forming that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. So, omega-3s also have a modest blood-thinning effect. That’s why you shouldn’t take them if you’re also taking a blood thinner.

Observational studies show that people who consume more omega-3s from fish have a lower risk of heart attack and heart failure but it’s not clear whether the benefits are due to the omega-3s in fish or the multiple components in fish itself. But when you look at the mechanisms by which long-chain omega-3s act, it makes sense that they would have benefits for heart health. Long-chain omega-3s appear to:

  • Lower blood triglycerides
  • Reduce inflammation

Many studies show that long-chain omega-3s may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, stroke, and premature death, although the results, in some cases, are conflicting. Based on the current evidence, there are few harms to taking omega-3s, unless you’re taking certain medications like blood thinners, and there are potential benefits to doing so. The benefits seem to be greatest for people who already have cardiovascular disease.

Long-chain omega-3s are critical to brain health too and there’s some evidence they slow age-related brain degeneration. In fact, DHA makes up almost a third of the gray matter in your brain. In addition, there’s some evidence that omega-3s may lower the risk of certain eye problems such as age-related macular degeneration and dry eye.

But what if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet and are opposed to getting long-chain omega-3s from fish oil supplements? You may have heard that there are vegetarian alternatives that supply long-chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA, in plant-based form. These alternatives are made from algae. Are they an effective alternative to fish oil supplements?

Where Plant-Based Omega-3s Come From

The long-chain omega-3s come from fish while the omega-3s in plant-based omega-3 supplements are derived from algae. In fact, fish get some of their omega-3s by eating the algae or consuming fish who have eaten algae. The omega-3s in algae-based omega-3 supplements are also in the long-chain form and include DHA and EPA. These are the ideal form for health based on current studies. Most research has looked at long-chain omega-3s as opposed to the other type of omega-3s, also known as short-chain omega-3s. These are abundant in some plant-based foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and sesame seeds.

The problem with short-chain omega-3s is your body can’t easily convert them to the long-chain form. Research shows less than 10% of the short-chain omega-3 you take in through diet gets converted to the long-chain form. However, there is some evidence that short-chain omega-3s have benefits independent of their conversion to the long-chain form. Still, there’s more evidence behind the health benefits of long-chain omega-3s than short-chain ones.

Fortunately, the form of omega-3 in plant-based omega-3s supplement is DHA and EPA, the long-chain type.

Another advantage of getting omega-3s from algae is they’re more sustainable, something we should worry about due to environmental concerns.  Plus, you’re less likely to experience side effects, like bloating, gaseousness, and nausea, when you take omega-3s from algae. This is a rather common problem with omega-3s from fish oil.

What Are the Disadvantages of Omega-3 Supplements from Algae?

Plant-based omega-3s are more expensive than a fish oil supplement and are harder to find since they aren’t as widely available. Fewer pharmacies and drugstores carry them, so you may have to order them online. Plus, fewer independent testing firms analyze omega-3 supplements made from algae for purity and to confirm they contain the quantity of DHA and EPA listed on the label. So, you may not know that what you’re getting is pure and contains the stated ingredients in the listed quantity. However, research shows that if producers grow algae-based omega-3s under controlled conditions, they may contain fewer toxins than fish oil.

Should You Take a Plant-based Omega-3 Supplement from Algae?

Omega-3s from algae are bioavailable and offer the same health benefits as the same omega-3s from fish. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet and don’t consume fish, they’re a plant-based alternative. Look for one that contains about 250 milligrams of DHA and EPA combined and take it most days of the week.

If you take other medications or supplements, talk to your physician before taking an omega-3 supplement of any type. Omega-3 supplements can interact with some medications. If you’re on a blood thinner, avoid all omega-3 supplements since they have a blood-thinning effect too and omega-3s may enhance this effect and increase the risk of bleeding.

The Bottom Line

If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based omega-3s may help you get long-chain omega-3s without consuming fish or fish oil. Although there’s less research available, the data suggests you can absorb these omega-3s in sufficient quantities to offer health benefits. Plus, they are in the long-chain form, the ideal form for health.

However, if you don’t eat a vegetarian or vegan diet and aren’t allergic to fish, eating fatty fish twice per week supplies long-chain omega-3s and protein too. Stick to fish that have lower levels of heavy metals and toxins that are still fatty, like wild-caught salmon and sardines, as the toxins can accumulate in your body over time if you consume too much. Avoid large fish higher on the food chain since they usually accumulate more toxins. At the very least, it’s good to know you have an alternative.

 

References:

  • Today’s Dietitian. “Are Plant-Based Omega-3s as Beneficial as the Omega-3s in Fish Oil”
  • National Institutes of Health. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids”
  • 2019 Nov 6;9(11):708. doi: 10.3390/biom9110708.
  • com. “Fatty Fish That Are High in Omega-3s”
  • com. “What Is Algae Oil, and Why Do People Take It?”
  • Front Aging Neurosci. 2015; 7: 52.Published online 2015 Apr 21. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2015.00052.

 

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