Herbal Supplements Versus Fish – Omega-3 Sources

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The term “vegetable” is ubiquitous these days – and there is no standard definition of what the term actually means.

That confusion may add to something I heard as a registered dietitian: eating plant-based omega-3s is the same as consuming fish-based omega-3s.

That is not true. And it’s a simplification.

There are actually three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In foods EPA and DHA from fatty cold water fish (salmon, tuna, sardines). In comparison, ALA comes from foods such as walnuts, leafy green vegetables, flax seeds, and chia seeds, among others.

All omega-3 fatty acids are essential, which means your body doesn’t make them like vitamin K does, for example. This means that you need to include omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.

And all omega-3s have been linked to better heart health, but here’s the catch: research is stronger for some acids than others.

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The difference between vegetable and marine omega-3 fatty acids

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While ALA-omega-3s are known to have some heart health benefits, the evidence for EPA and DHA-omega-3s is stronger and more specific. In particular, science supports EPA and DHA risk reduction for coronary heart disease, cardiac death, and myocardial infarction (heart attack).

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EPA and DHA can also lower triglycerides and blood pressure, and there are strong indications of cognitive health, prenatal / maternal health, and eye health.

ALA has not been shown to have the same depth or breadth of benefit. While there is a role in the diet for plant-based omega-3s like ALA, the fact is that most Americans are usually getting enough ALA. Think of it this way: ALA is like a Honda Civic versus an EPA / DHA Tesla. Both are cars, but both are not quite on the same level.

At the other end of the omega-3 spectrum, nearly 95 percent of Americans don’t consume enough EPA and DHA, according to the National Health and Nutrition Survey.

The main problem with most herbal supplements is that they don’t contain EPA or DHA due to the lack of the enzymes that synthesize these fatty acids.

How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids Should You Eat Each Day?

This photo shows a person in the kitchen cutting fish, including salmon, a cobblestone

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Your body converts ALA to EPA and DHA poorly. In fact, a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that only about 8 percent of dietary ALA was converted to EPA (or 80 milligrams) in healthy young men [mg] of 1,000 mg each).

And DHA? The same study found that ALA was converted to DHA at a maximum of 4 percent (or a maximum of 40 mg) and only 0 percent. So that’s a total of 120 mg at best.

While there is no reference intake (DRI) for EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids in the US, many scientific and government agencies around the world recommend a minimum of 250 to 500 mg EPA / DHA daily.

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