Omega 3 Fats: For Those That Don’t Eat Fish

Omega 3 Fats-For Those That Don’t Eat Fish
Health magazine articles touting the benefits of omega 3 fats are commonplace these days. Omega 3 fats, mostly associated with fish intake, are being sold as a magic bullet for the millions of Americans who are believed to be omega-3 deficient. What about those people that don’t eat fish at all; are they among the deficient or can they attain optimal health without eat any fish at all?

The scientific evidence supporting omega 3 fats is strongly suggestive but not conclusive. Researchers have long known that omega-3s thin the blood and trigger the production of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. It appears that in addition to potentially lowering heart disease risk and blood pressure, omega-3s might reduce ones risk of developing macular degeneration, depression, some cancers, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3s have been studied clinically and shown to provide some benefit for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus, and MS.

There are two essential fats, the omega 6 linolenic acid (LA) and the omega 3 alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), both containing 18 carbon molecules in their structure. The omega 3s under examination are the 18-carbon (ALA), 20-carbon eicosapentaenoic (EPA), and 22-carbon docosahexaenoic (DHA). The traditional thinking is that ALA is typically lengthened into EPA and DHA as needed by the body. Certain cold water fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, are rich sources of the long-chain omega 3s that are derived from microscopic algae, plankton, and crustacea that are at the bottom of the food chain and are consumed by fish. Large cold-water fish consume these smaller fish and concentrate these omega 3 fats, which have a very low freezing point, enabling them to swim in very cold water without having their blood freeze solid. For this reason, omega 3 fats are often called “nature’s antifreeze.”

EPA and DHA have more potent effects in the body and are being studied for different benefits. For example, EPA specifically may be helpful for treating schizophrenia while DHA may be more helpful in reducing high blood pressure. DHA has recently been recognized as an essential fat in the development of the brain and retina of the developing fetus.  As mentioned, ALA supplementation has been considered an effective way to ensure the synthesis of EPA and DHA, and since many vegetarians use flax seed or flax seed oil (an excellent source of ALA), the assumption has been that EPA and DHA needs are being met. A study that examined this issue, however, found that ALA intake increased EPA somewhat while producing virtually no increase in DHA levels.1

There is a DHA supplement available on the market today called Neuromins that is derived from algae. This product has been evaluated and is currently on the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list for adults, including pregnant and lactating women. This is the source of DHA that is being added to infant formulas in other countries and is being examined for supplementation in the US.  

A study in 1996 examined the relationship between DHA supplementation (from algae) on EPA and DHA levels in vegetarians. Twenty-four healthy participants consumed either nine capsules of DHA each day (1620 milligrams) or an equal amount of corn oil for six weeks. The studied showed that consuming omega 3s from algae was effective; consumption increased the serum phospholipid content of DHA in the body by 246% and in platelet phospholipids by 225%. EPA levels also increased dramatically. In addition, total and LDL cholesterol levels were improved.2

In addition to oily fish, certain eggs known as omega 3 eggs - can be a good source of DHA. Gold Circle Farms feeds their chickens a diet rich in ALA and sells the eggs labeled as DHA Omega 3 Eggs (each egg contains 150 milligrams DHA). Those that do not eat fish at all can obtain short-chain omega 3s from flax seed and flax seed oil, pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables, and walnuts, and long-chain omega 3s from designer eggs.

How Much DHA?

  • Two omega 3 eggs: 300 milligrams DHA
  • 3.5 ounce serving of salmon: 600 800 milligrams of DHA
  • Neuromins DHA: Aim for 100mg per day if consuming other DHA sources and 200mg per day if you are a non-fish eater.

Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD

1 Mantzioris E, et al. Differences exist in the relationships between dietary linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids and their respective long-chain metabolites. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;61:320-324.

2 Conquer JA, et al. Supplementation with an algae source of docosahexaenoic acid increases (n-3) fatty acid status and alters selected risk factors for heart disease in vegetarian subjects. J Nutr. 1996 Dec;126(12):3032-9.

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