“I don’t eat fish—I’ve been a vegetarian for almost a decade—but I know I need omega-3s.” - Kristin Casey: Age: 29, mom, San Diego, Calif.
Kristin recalls her first fish experience with great clarity. “We went fishing when I was a kid, and we threw back the fish. Mine hit a rock and died. I was in tears for days,” she says. “I know lots of people who are mostly vegetarian and eat fish, but I’m just not into it.” Lately, though, she’s been wondering if there’s a way to get the health benefits of fish without actually eating it: “Is there a plant-based way to get omega-3s? I know you can buy the supplements, but a natural way would be cooler.”
Fish is hands-down the best source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. In some cases, one serving can net you more than three times your daily recommended intake. So for vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat fish, it’s important to find plant-based sources and work as many into your daily diet as possible.
- First, a lesson on fish and fats: There are three types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into the latter category—polyunsaturated. Omega-3s are further divided into three subsets: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mostly in plant-based sources; EPA and DHA are found mostly in fish. However, we can’t use ALA as well as the other two forms, so our bodies convert ALA into EPA and DHA. But it’s not a very efficient process. The average non-fish-eater has to consume 10g of ALA to yield roughly 1g of EPA and DHA. With that in mind, add as many sources of ALA (we’ve got ideas for you below) to your daily diet to ensure you’re getting adequate omega-3s.
- Stir in some flaxseed. A 2-tablespoon serving of ground flaxseed has more than 3g of ALA omega-3s. Add it to your morning oatmeal, stir it into yogurt, or mix it in a bread dough or muffin batter for an added nutritional helping. Just be sure you grind the seeds: They’re useless whole. Your body can’t break them down and absorb their omega-3 goodness.
- Go a little nuts. Two tablespoons of chopped walnuts have more than a gram of ALA. Walnuts are great as a snack or as a topping to oatmeal, yogurt, or salad. For meals, stir our Parsley and Walnut Pesto into pasta for a healthy omega-3–rich dinner.
- Try tofu. It’s another hefty source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, giving you as much as a quarter of your daily ALA amount in a half cup.
- Look for omega-3-enriched eggs, if you eat them. Chickens fed a high-flaxseed diet produce eggs with a high omega-3 count.
- Take a supplement. It’s better to get omega-3s naturally from food, but you may still be low on omega-3s if you rely fully on vegetarian sources. Just to cover all the bases, take an algae-based DHA supplement. Why algae? In the ocean, fish get their DHA by eating algae (or by eating other fish that eat algae), so why shouldn’t vegetarians?