Dr. Li Zi-Huey
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What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. They play an important role in cellular function and in maintaining heart health, brain health, kidney function, eye health, and skin health. But you don't necessarily need to turn to fish or fish oil supplements to get your omega-3s.

Are Omega-3s found in plant foods?

Yes, Omega-3 fatty acids are readily available in a wide variety of plant foods. Sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, edamame, seaweed, and algae. Other green leafy vegetables and beans also contain small amounts.

Are plant-based Omega-3 sources different from fish-based sources?

Plant-derived omega-3s come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—which is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid. Our bodies cannot synthesize it, so we must consume ALA through our diets. The body naturally converts ALA into longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is important for brain health, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Fish contain both DHA and EPA. But that doesn’t mean those following plant-based diets are deficient in this longer-chain omega-3s. In fact, according to findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study,  people following vegan diets actually had significantly more long-chain omega-3 fats in their blood, compared with fish-eaters, meat-eaters, and ovo-lacto vegetarians. Despite zero intakes of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) and a lower intake of the plant-derived ALA, vegan participants converted robust amounts of shorter-chain fatty acids into these long-chain fatty acids, compared to fish eaters.

Do people eating plant-based diets have adequate Omega-3 levels?

Most people following plant-based diets have no problem getting enough omega-3s in their diets. One study found that people who follow vegan diets, on average, have intakes above the recommended amounts for omega-3 fats.

Is a plant-based diet healthy for the brain?

Absolutely yes! Plant-based foods are beneficial to the brain and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Research shows that saturated and trans fats—found in animal products, pastries, and fried foods can increase the risk for cognitive decline. Foods rich in vitamin E - including nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains, are especially beneficial for brain health. Studies have also suggested that vitamin C - found in fruits and vegetables, may help protect against cognitive decline. The American Heart Association ( AHA ) recommends a dietary pattern that includes healthy sources of proteins, mostly from plant sources, and eating fish twice a week  ( 2 servings of fish ) per week, which is sufficient and beneficial for your heart.

So is it okay to eat fish every day?

“While it might be safe to eat fish every day”, says Eric Rimm, a professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health but it’s still not clear if there are any added health benefits to that level of consumption.

“Most of the science isn’t looking at daily consumption,” he explains. “But many, many studies have shown that those who have it a couple of times a week have a lower rate of fatal heart attacks compared to those who don’t eat any.”

There are some exceptions, For example, pregnant women and children should avoid larger fish with longer lifespans—like swordfish and tuna—because those can have higher levels of toxins, such as mercury. There are also environmental considerations, including the risk of overfishing certain species.

What about fish oil supplements?

Although fish oil supplements have been touted as a cure for everything from heart problems to arthritis, current research shows that there may not be many benefits to taking the supplement. According to a review that combined data from 20 studies, the use of omega-3 supplements over a two-year period had no effect on heart-related death, heart attack, or stroke. According to a 2017 AHA advisory said while these supplements may slightly lower the risk of dying after a heart attack or heart failure, they don't prevent heart disease. Another study found no link between regular consumption of fish oil supplements and the prevention or improvement of dementia.

In a nutshell, eat them in moderation, 2-3 servings of fish per week for its heart-healthy benefits. Most importantly, let us adopt a healthy diet that focuses on foods derived from plant sources. This includes fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, and meat substitutes such as soy, for the full range of essential nutrients without worrying about the toxins and other health risks associated with fish consumption.


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