Do I need to take fish oil?

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Fish oil has been a big topic for decades; research has shown that the essential fatty acids in fish oil are beneficial for heart and brain health. That’s left vegetarians and others who don’t eat fish a little concerned. Are we missing out on something important?

Two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids in fish, EPA and DHA, are connected with these benefits and are important for brain development in infants. Plant foods can also provide omega-3 fats, but this is almost always as ALA, which the body converts quite inefficiently to EPA and DHA. Research shows that people who don’t eat fish, and don’t get EPA and DHA from food, tend to have lower levels of those fatty acids in their blood.

There’s a problem with telling everyone to eat and supplement with fish, though: there aren’t enough of them. Overfishing has become a serious issue for not only the long-term but the short-term as well; the world’s fisheries may be depleted by 2048 at our current rate of fishing, so encouraging people to eat more fish isn’t a sustainable solution either.

There’s a new contender in this game, though. It’s actually an old contender, because it’s where fish get their omega-3 fats in the first place: algae. At the end of the food chain, some algae produce DHA, and we can now go straight to the source with algae oil supplements that can provide enough of this essential fat to meet our needs.

There’s still a lot of research to be done on the benefits of long-term supplementation with EPA and DHA, but research has shown that supplementing with algae oil improves the levels of these fatty acids in the blood of vegetarians.

Research isn’t yet clear on whether supplementation is necessary for everyone, so if you’re not always able to have algae-sourced DHA, remember that there is a lot of research showing the benefits of plant-based eating, including a lot of fruits and vegetables, for brain and heart health.

Supplements can be too expensive for many people who are otherwise healthy to justify the investment, so if that’s a concern for you, focus your energy on other foods first, especially foods that provide ALA omega-3 fats: walnuts, flax and chia seeds, soybeans, and canola oil. In the meantime, those who have a family history or other risk factors for heart disease or cognitive decline may have more of a reason to be interested in supplementing.

“Supplements can be expensive; if that’s a concern, focus your energy on other foods first, especially walnuts, flax and chia seeds, soybeans, and canola oil.”

There are also more and more products that are being supplemented with DHA. You may see some popular brands of orange juice and cow’s milk being supplemented with fish oil, but there are options for anyone. Ripple Foods produces a pea-based milk with algal DHA, and you can buy tofu or buttery spread with DHA as well.

Ask your doctor about options for testing your blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, or your Omega-3 Index. If a doctor or other healthcare professional recommends supplementing, get a dosage recommendation; the fats are the same in fish and algae oil, but the levels of each will vary between different products.

The Short Answer

Fish and fish oil can be part of a heart-healthy eating pattern, but aren’t sustainable; overfishing may be a serious issue in the near future. Anyone can more sustainably meet their needs for omega-3 fats by eating plant foods that provide ALA, such as walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and soybeans, and by supplementing with DHA sourced from algae.