Updated: Nov 22
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat with many health benefits.
We often associate omega-3 fats with seafood but did you know there are plant-based sources of these fats also.
Read on to find out how you can reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids without the seafood.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two categories:
1. Short chain omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is an essential fatty acid. This means our body is unable to make this fat and we must get it through our diet. Sources of ALA are mostly plant-based.
2. Long chain omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaeinoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). These fats are commonly associated with a diet rich in oily fish.
But did you know, our body is also able to make these long-chain omega-3 fats by converting a small portion of the essential short-chain fat ALA into the longer chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA.
However, our body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is limited with only a small percentage of dietary ALA being converted. This conversion is influenced by the amount of ALA in our diet, intake of other dietary fats, and our life stage.
Health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
Studies show many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly from the long-chain fatty acids (EPA, DHA and DPA).
Increased intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA and DPA) is associated with:
Reduced risk of heart disease
Improved immune function
Improved insulin sensitivity
Structural integrity of our retina and nerves
Appropriate visual and neurological development in a foetus
May reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and depression
Due to these health benefits, it is recommended to consume 2-3 serves of fish per week. One serve is equivalent to 150g of fish such as salmon, tinned tuna, tinned sardines, trout, barramundi etc.
But what happens if you do not like seafood or you choose to avoid seafood for ethical reasons. Can you still get the benefits of these long-chain omega-3 fats?
Yes! And here is how.
1. Increase your intake of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
As we know, some of the essential ALA consumed in our diet can be converted into the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. Therefore, increasing our intake of ALA rich foods can help enhance our body’s production of these healthy fats.
Luckily ALA is found in many plant foods. Try to include these foods regularly in your diet to ensure you are meeting your ALA requirements:
For example, you could sprinkle a tablespoon of chia seeds into your morning smoothie or cereal, use canola oil in cooking, snack on a handful of walnuts and use tofu or edamame in a stir fry.
2. Replace omega-6 fats with monounsaturated fat or omega-3 fats
The omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid is a healthy fat, however, it can reduce our body’s ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. Most people consume a large amount of omega-6 fatty acids. Replacing some of these fats with monounsaturated fat or more of the omega-3 fat ALA will help our body convert more ALA into the long-chain EPA and DHA fats.
Rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids are found in sunflower oil, sesame oil, and margarines made with sunflower oil. Instead choose olive oil or canola oil and spreads. For example, if you regularly cook with sunflower oil, consider swapping to olive oil or canola oil.
3. Fortified foods
If you dislike the taste of seafood you can utilise foods that have been fortified. This means the manufacturer has added a source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids into the product. This may not be suitable for people who are vegetarian or vegan as fish oil is often the source of omega-3 fats. However, some brands use flaxseed oil or microalgae which is appropriate for vegetarians and vegans.
You can find fortified products at your local supermarket. Most brands will include “Omega-3” on the label or you can read the ingredients and look out for fish oil, flaxseed oil, or microalgae.
Common fortified products include:
4. Algae supplements
Algae is a rich source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Studies show that algae supplements are effective and safe. They also provide the same anti-inflammatory and heart protective properties of fish oil.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplements from algae sources may be helpful for people who:
Have increased requirements during pregnancy and lactation
Want to ensure they are getting the health benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
People who have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or are older as their ability to convert ALA to long chain omega-3 fats is reduced.
You can speak with your doctor or dietitian about how best to incorporate these supplements into your diet.
There you have it! You don’t need seafood to get the health benefits of long-chain omega-3 fats.
If you would like to discuss how to have a nutritious plant-based diet you can book in to chat with a dietitian here.
This blog post was written by our dietitian Kim. You can learn more about Kim at her website Kim Lindsay Nutrition.