Are Plant-and Fish-Based Omega-3s Equally Good For You?

The answer may surprise you...

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By Sarah McColl

You’ve heard it over and over—omega-3 fatty acids are critical to cell health, helping to prevent heart disease and stroke, cancer, arthritis and memory loss. Recent studies have even shown it to alleviate depression and reduce post-traumatic stress disorder

Yet, unlike other fats, we’re incapable of making our own—we must consume them to reap their benefits. You can get omega-3s from two sources: By consuming fish or by eating plant-based foods, such as flax or chia seeds, walnuts or leafy vegetables such as spinach.

So what’s the best way to incorporate omega-3s into your daily diet? And are all sources created equal? It’s more complicated than you think.

When you eat marine-based sources of omega-3s you’re getting DHA and EPA. These are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are truly beneficial for cell health.

A handful of walnuts or spoonful of flax seeds ground into a smoothie offers a different kind of omega-3. Plant-based omega-3s don’t have any DHA or EPA; instead, they have ALA, a shorter-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid that isn’t as effective in cell growth. 

Here’s where the confusion comes in: There’s an enzyme that can convert ALA into long-chained omega-3s, but that depends on a host of factors like sex, age, and what other kinds of fats you consume. Typically, less than 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA—some studies have found the conversion rate is as low as 0.1 to 0.5 percent. It’s like trying to boil water by candlelight.

So what’s the verdict? So far, no human studies have shown that vegetarian omega-3 sources (ALA) lead to truly beneficial levels of EPA and DHA inside the body’s cells and tissues.

“If I’m advising a patient on the most reliable forms of EPA and DHA to help with medical conditions such as high triglycerides, arthritis, allergies, depression or autoimmune conditions, I usually recommend a reliable, clean fish oil source,” says Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, a board-certified physician in family and integrative medicine and author of the forthcoming book Bodywise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing.

For her vegetarian patients who want a DHA supplement, algae-sourced DHA is available, she said. But it is much harder to extract and much more expensive to manufacture. “For most of us, a high-quality fish oil supplement is the way to get a reliable boost in our EPA and DHA levels.” 

“The research is quite compelling,” said Jared Koch, founder of Clean Plates and a certified nutritional consultant and health coach. “I strongly recommend getting your essential fatty acids from an animal source. I personally take krill oil as a supplement and eat a good amount of wild salmon.”

Want to get more omega-3s into your diet? Load your plate up with salmon, sardines, tuna, lake trout, anchovies and mackerel, to name a few fish. Our Grilled Wild Salmon with Avocado and Pickled Ginger, Dukkah-Spiced Salmon Patties (recipe below), or Tuna Ceviche with Avocado and Serrano Chiles will help you add this essential fat into your daily diet in tasty new ways.

Low-Sodium Salmon Patty Recipe
Photo Credit: John Lee

Private: Dukka- Spiced Salmon Patties

  • Serves: 6 to 8 patties
  • Prep Time:
  • Cook Time:
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Ingredients

  • For the Salmon Patties
  • 1 1/2 lb [680 g] salmon fillets, skin on and deboned
  • Dukka Spice Mix (see below)
  • 2 green onions, root ends trimmed, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 white onion, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup [7 g] chopped fresh cilantro or basil
  • Zest of 1 lemon, plus 1/2 lemon for squeezing
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 Tbsp chickpea flour, or 1/4 cup [15 g] panko bread crumbs
  • Vegetable oil for frying (Clean Plates suggests using coconut oil)
  • Carrot–Sweet Onion Dressing (see below) or Greek yogurt for serving
  • For the Dukka Spice Mix:
  • 3/4 cup [90 g] toasted salt-free pepitas, pine nuts, pistachios, or almonds
  • 2 Tbsp white sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1/4 tsp salt-free garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • For the Carrot-Sweet Onion Dressing:
  • 1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 white onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup [120 ml] grapeseed oil or olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp salt-free garlic powder

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F [190°C]. Line a baking pan with parchment paper.
  2. Place the salmon fillets skin-side down in the prepared baking pan. Bake until the fish turns light pink, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Once cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the salmon skin. Put a fresh piece of parchment in the baking pan.
  3. Using two forks, flake the cooked salmon into small pieces and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the dukka, green onions, white onion, cilantro, lemon zest, egg, and chickpea flour. Stir to combine. Make small salmon patties, 2 1/ 2 in [6 cm] wide, using about 1/ 2 cup [90 g] of the mixture per patty. Place the patties in the prepared baking pan. Cover with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or overnight, to help the patties firm up for successful frying.
  4. When ready to cook, line a large plate with paper towels. In a large skillet, heat 2 to 3 Tbsp vegetable oil over medium-high heat until the oil begins to ripple. Carefully put two patties into the skillet and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the patties and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the patties to the prepared plate. Discard any browned bits from the skillet and repeat with the remaining patties, adding more oil and adjusting the heat as needed. Serve warm with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of dressing.
  5. For the Dukka Spice Mix: Heat a medium skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the pepitas and toast, stirring frequently, until they turn golden and begin to pop, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the pepitas to a small mixing bowl. Add the sesame seeds, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds to the skillet and toast until they become fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  6. Transfer the toasted nuts and seeds to a food processor (or spice grinder). Add the garlic powder and pepper and pulse until the mixture forms a crumbly powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
  7. For the Carrot-Sweet Onion Dressing: Fill a small pot with 2 in (5 cm) water and place a metal steamer basket in the pot, above the water. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat and place the carrot pieces in the steamer basket. Cover and steam over medium-low heat until the carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.
  8. Transfer the carrot to a small food processor (or blender). Add the onion, grapeseed oil, vinegar, lemon juice, garlic powder, and 1 Tbsp water and blend. (The dressing will be slightly chunky, so if you want it smoother, add a bit more water or lemon juice.)
  9. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
  10. Variation: Want to make a faster version of this recipe for dinner? Simply coat even-size salmon fillets with 1 tsp vegetable oil each. Rub the dukka on top and cook the fillets as directed. Remove the skin and serve whole with lemon wedges or the dressing.