When natural health experts extol the numerous proven health benefits of omega-3 rich fish oil, vegans and vegetarians feel left out. There is a fish-free alternative in microalgae, which is a vegetarian omega-3 source.
The Essential Fatty Acids In Fish Oil Begin in Plankton
The fish at the top of the food chain in plankton-rich cold waters are often harvested for their oil. The beneficial decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosahexaenoic acid (EPA) found in cold-water fish, however, originates in the plankton, also known as microalgae, that the fish they eat consume for food.
Microalgae grow in cold waters that are just a few degrees above, or sometimes even a degree or two below, the freezing point of fresh water.
To keep from forming ice crystals that would cause them to burst open in freezing conditions, these tiny ocean plants produce large amounts of three different kinds of essential fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is also found in flaxseed oil and nuts, and DHA and EPA.
Little fish eat lots of microalgae. Big fish eat lots of little fish. The big fish concentrate DHA and EPA in their own bodies as part of their way of dealing with cold.
They have to get it by eating the algae or eating other fish that eat the algae.
They can't make these essential fatty acids on their own. But you don't have to eat the big fish-or the little fish-to get the DHA and EPA made by the plants.
Omega-3 for Vegetarians
If you are a vegan or a vegetarian, you don't have to rely on microalgae for your omega-3's. You can get the omega-3 essential fatty acids you need from flaxseed oil and walnut oil.
There's just one problem with using these higher-plant sources of essential omega-3's.
All plant oils that contain the anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids also contain the pro-inflammatory omega-6 essential fatty acids, and only flaxseed oil contains more omega-3's than omega-6's.
If you consume any kind of plant oil other than flaxseed oil, then you are going to have difficulty keeping your omega-3's and omega-6's in balance.
And some of the plant oils with the most antioxidant power, such as coconut and sesame, don't contain any omega-3's at all!
Vegetarians need a lot more of the omega-3's
That's why microalgae make it easier for vegans and vegetarians to get the right essential fatty acids in the right balance. Both omega-6's and omega-3's are "good." It's just that most of us, especially vegans and vegetarians, need a lot more of the omega-3's and a lot less of the omega-6's.
How Can I Make the Most of Vegetarian Alternatives to Fish Oil Pills?
The purpose of taking either a fish oil supplement or a microalgae supplement is to get the DHA and EPA your body needs ready-made, with a minimum of fat.
At a minimum, your body needs about 1,000 mg of DHA + EPA (roughly 1/3 DHA and 2/3 EPA). That's the equivalent of three capsules of microalgae oil, preferably taken one capsule with each meal.
It's hard to overdose on microalgae oil, but it can happen if you are taking 15,000 mg or more to correct a specific condition.
If you are getting too much microalgae, your digestive tract will let you know first. If you start having burping and diarrhea, just take less!
That's a sign that your body has all the omega-3's it needs to balance omega-6.
Microalgae are harder to "catch," so they cost a little more than fish oil capsules. If you want the assurance of eating a healthy, vegan product free of pollutants and toxins that can accumulate in fish, however, you'll probably find the small additional expense a worthwhile investment.
- Diniz YS, Cicogna AC, Padovani CR, Santana LS, Faine LA, Novelli EL (2004). "Diets rich in saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids: metabolic shifting and cardiac health". Nutrition 20 (2): 230-4.