Reader’s Question: I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t want to take fish oil supplements. Can I get the omega-3s I need from plant-based sources?
Dr. Glenn Rothfeld: If you’ve been reading my Health eTips for a while now, you know that I can’t sing the praises of omega-3s enough.
These inflammation-fighting fatty acids — largely found in fatty fish and other marine life — are “megastars” when it comes to just about every aspect of your health.
But if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or just can’t stand all of that fishy flavour, getting enough of the good stuff can be a challenge.
Nuts and seeds (particularly flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and walnuts) provide some of the plant-based omega-3s you’re looking for — but the fatty acids they contain are actually different than the ones you’ll find in fish.
And the latest research shows that they were not created equal.
In a recent study out of Canada, researchers took mice who were genetically predisposed to develop an aggressive type of breast cancer and fed them either fish oil, flaxseed, or a control supplement.
After five months, the mice who ate fish oil had 30 per cent fewer cancerous tumors than the controls, and the tumors they did develop were 70 per cent smaller.
And, as the researchers noted, the omega-3s found in fish are likely also beneficial for other types of cancer.
Now, here’s the rub: Flaxseed oil produced similar results, but it took over three times more of it than fish oil to achieve the same benefits!
That may be because your body has to convert the alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA for short) found in nuts and seeds into forms of omega-3 fatty acids it can actually use — which, as I’ve shared with you in the past, are EPA and DHA.
Because of this, and depending on the quantity of nuts and greens you’re eating, relying on plant-based sources means that you’re potentially getting less than optimal levels of the strongest omega-3s.
But when you bite into a piece of fish… or take a fish oil supplement… you’re cutting out the middleman and getting the EPA and DHA you need directly.
Still, though, if you’re determined to stay away from anything that looks remotely fishy, getting your omega-3s from nuts and seeds is still better than getting none at all.
And in that case, I recommend supplementing with flaxseed or flaxseed oil. But I should note that because ALA itself has been linked to higher risk of issues like cataracts and prostate cancer (though not all research agrees), be sure to consult a nutritionally minded physician about what quantity is right for you.
However, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t point out that all it takes is two to three servings of omega-3-rich fish each week to get about the same amount of omega-3s as used in the study — and beat back the risk of cancer.
Cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies are the best choices… and wild-caught varieties also pack in more of these fatty acids than farmed ones.
Something else got you reeling? Send me an email at email@example.com, and I may choose your question to answer next.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing