They’re vital for healthy aging—and studies show omega-3 fats tame inflammation, balance mood, protect the brain and slash the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and some types of cancer. But documentaries about the dark side of the fishing industry are making serious waves, and sustainability concerns make eating seafood seem suddenly fishy. Plant sources of ALA omega-3s are inefficient, so where else can we get our DHA and EPA? Here’s the skinny on omega-3 fats, the dish on fish, and sustainable ways to get more omega-3s.
The issue with fish.
Our appetite for seafood has outpaced the ability of fish to reproduce, dangerously diminishing populations, changing the size of remaining fish, threatening vulnerable species and creating a systemic imbalance that impacts the entire marine ecosystem. And hundreds of thousands of sea creatures—including whales, dolphins and sea turtles—are killed as a byproduct of the fishing industry. Fish farms aren’t necessarily the answer; poorly managed, they’re an environmental nightmare, generating significant waste, releasing toxins into surrounding waters and endangering local ecosystems. And contaminants in seafood—including mercury, heavy metals, pesticide runoff, microbeads from plastic and other toxins—pose serious hazards to human health.
The problem with plants.
Plenty of plant foods—especially chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and purslane—contain omega-3 fats. The problem: they occur as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a form of omega-3 that’s not biologically active. The body has to convert ALA from plants into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the usable forms of omega-3s. But the conversion process is extremely inefficient. Some research suggests as little as 5 percent of ALA is converted to EPA, and less than 0.5 percent is converted to DHA—so plants alone aren’t a viable dietary source of usable omega-3s.
1. Oysters. Farmed oysters are a far more ocean-friendly option than fish. The growing process has minimal impact on the environment, and farmed oysters don’t harm wild species; rather, they clean waterways, support wild populations and improve the ecosystem. And oysters are loaded with omega-3s—between 500 and 700 mg of EPA and DHA per serving—as well as vitamin B12, magnesium and antioxidants. They’re exceptionally high in zinc; 3 ounces of oysters contains 74 mg, almost 700 percent of the recommended daily value.
2. Algae oil supplements. When fish eat sea algae, they convert the plant ALA into EPA and DHA—so, instead of eating fish, go right to the source. Supplements derived from marine algae are a plant-based, sustainable way to get more omega-3s, and some brands contain 85 percent more EPA and DHA per serving than fish oil. And research shows algae oil is similar to fish in terms of EPA and DHA bioavailability, and may be as effective as fish oil in reducing triglycerides, improving cholesterol and protecting against heart disease and other conditions. Besides their ocean-friendly benefits, algae oil supplements are free from cholesterol and toxins found in fish oil, and they’re an excellent alternative for vegans or anyone with seafood allergies.
3. Pastured eggs. Omega-3 fortified eggs are produced by supplementing chickens’ usual grain diet with flaxseeds. But unless the carton says otherwise, they’re typically raised in cages—not the most humane choice. A better option: eggs from pastured chickens are a rich source of omega-3s, and some research shows they have six times more EPA and DHA than eggs from grain-fed chickens. Free-roaming pastured chickens eat grass, seeds and insects; like fish, they convert ALA from plants into EPA and DHA. In one study, pastured eggs had almost three times the level of omega-3 fats than those from caged hens, and a better ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. And eggs are a good source of high-quality protein, plus vitamin B12, choline, lutein, zeaxanthin and other nutrients.
4. Rainbow trout. Depending on where and how it’s raised, this freshwater fish is a more sustainable alternative to ocean fish. Rainbow trout farm-raised in the United States come from strictly regulated systems like ponds, raceways (which mimic free-flowing rivers) or recirculating aquaculture systems that don’t pollute the environment or disrupt natural species. And rainbow trout is low in toxins and high in omega-3s—a 3-ounce serving has from 500 to 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA. Like other fish, it’s rich in protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. Rainbow trout farmed in the United States is the safest, most sustainable option; Canada and Chile are considered good second choices.
5. Green-lipped mussel oil. For a concentrated, but ocean-friendly, source of EPA and DHA: green-lipped mussel oil is a more sustainable alternative to fish oil. Native to New Zealand, green-lipped mussels are raised in carefully monitored farms free from pesticides, fertilizers or toxins; wild varieties are harvested according to strict protocols designed to halt overharvesting and minimize environmental impact. As a supplement, green-lipped mussel oil is low in toxins, extremely high in EPA and DHA, with potent anti-inflammatory benefits. And some research suggests it’s even more effective than fish oil in improving joint pain, reducing stiffness and swelling, and easing symptoms of arthritis.