What alternatives to fish oil are there for those who don’t eat fish?

The omega-3 fats found in oily fish such as mackerel, herring, sardine and salmon appear to have broad-ranging benefits, particularly with regard to the health of the cardiovascular system and brain. Omega-3 fats in fish come in two principle forms: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While these fats can be found abundantly in fish and fish-oil supplements, there are concerns about the sustainability of these sources (there are only so many fish in the sea). Also, for individuals who do not wish to or can’t eat fish, these sources are simply not an option.

These issues have led some, quite reasonably, to seek alternative sources for EPA and DHA. One potential option here is the fat alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Found in certain nuts, seeds and vegetables, ALA is what is known as a chemical ‘precursor’ of EPA and DHA. In theory at least, ALA consumed in the diet might be converted into EPA and DHA by the body. Previously, though, there has been the thought that conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is slow and generally inadequate. This has led to the idea that upping ALA intake is unlikely to do much to bolster EPA and DHA levels in the body.

The idea that ALA might have value in raising EPA/DHA levels was tested again recently. In this study, individuals were given supplements of ALA (in the form of flaxseed oil), fish oil, and sunflower oil (control) for a 12-week period. What the researchers found was that fish oil supplementation increased the levels of both EPA and DHA significantly (as you’d expect). More interesting, though, was the finding that ALA supplementation led to a significant increase in EPA levels, though it did not raise DHA levels significantly. In this study, flaxseed oil was given at three dosages: 1.2, 2.4 and 3.6 grams per day. On the two higher dosages led to a significant increase in EPA levels. Yet, the lower of the two effective dosages represents quite a low dose of flaxseed oil (about ½ teaspoon a day).

The results of this study suggest that supplementing with ALA (e.g. as flaxseed oil) or increasing ALA intake from foods (e.g. walnuts) may be a viable way for individuals to boost EPA levels in the body. That still, however, means that some individuals might miss out of whatever benefits higher levels of DHA may have to offer. As it happens, vegetarian sources of DHA (say, derived from algae) are relatively readily available. Some of these supplements contain EPA, though usually at quite low dosages compared to their DHA content (see http://www.water4.net/ for an example). Taking such as supplement is probably a good idea for non-fish eaters looking to nourish themselves as best as possible. Adding flaxseed oil to such a supplement would be a good ploy too, I think, in that it will help to ensure good levels of EPA in the body too.


Barcelo-Coblijn G, et al. Flaxseed oil and fish-oil capsule consumption alters human red blood cell n”3 fatty acid composition: a multiple-dosing trial comparing 2 sources of n”3 fatty acid. Am J Clin Nutr, 2008; 88(3): 801-9.

10 Responses to What alternatives to fish oil are there for those who don’t eat fish?

  1. Sally 19 September 2008 at 6:17 pm #

    Aa a vegetarian with a keen interest in health, I was very pleased to see you writing about this John – thanks. I have been taking flax oil and vegetarian algal DHA as supplements for a few years and have noticed the difference in the health of my skin and of my brain! The only supplier I’ve found for the algal DHA in the UK though is Healthspan – http://www.healthspan.co.uk – so thought I’d mention them incase others find that information useful. If anyone knows of another supplier I’d be keen to hear.

  2. JOHN IVENS 19 September 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    You might like to do a follow-up on Dr. Joanna Budwig’s cancer cure. Flaxseed and cottage cheese, described by Dr Roehm who used her protocol as “far and away the most successful anti-cancer diet in the world”, and also “Curing cancer is easy”. She was nominated for 7 Nobel Prizes, and lived to 93.
    She said on German radio that she took terminal cases given up by Doctors and cured 90% of them.This is simply an incredible achievement which you will never see discussed in the media, as it is controlled by Big Pharma.So spread the word. Plenty of info on the Net about her.
    It is also good for keeping the vascular system clean, both of which considerations were presumably responsible for her longevity.
    Bear in mind that in just 15 months time, Vitamins and Minerals will be unavailable in proper daily quantity, and actually described in the Codex Alimentarius legislation as “toxic substances”,forced on us without Parliamentary consideration by the WTO.
    I take her diet for breakfast but with fresh ground seeds, not oil. If you look up the comparison, oil is inferior. I add any fruits, cocoa powder-very anti-cancer, and honey. A wonderful inexpensive breakfast and a great cancer preventer. 2 Tablespoons of seed, and the same of cottage cheese.

  3. Marcus 19 September 2008 at 11:23 pm #

    I currently have one tablespoon of flaxseed oil per day. I changed from capsules as I understood that fresh organically produced flaxseed oil is best.

    However, I have to keep the container refrigerated once opened, otherwise it starts to go very bitter.

    I also take some fish oil

    Good health,


  4. Cathy 20 September 2008 at 1:15 am #

    One thing they don’t take into consideration when measuring conversion of ALA to EPA or DHA is how much the study subjects have blocked the D6D pathway by having lots of omega 6 and sugar in the diet.
    Fish oil makes me physically sick, possibly the brands I tried had gone rancid so it’s good to hear that flax does significantly raise EPA at least.

  5. sam 22 September 2008 at 5:21 pm #

    i am really confused …. we are told that western diet contains too much omega 6 specifically a high omega 6:3 ratio, so why are we encouraged to eat foods (such as nuts) and take supplements that contain both 6 & 3 ????

    hope someone can help – this has really bugged me for a while ….

  6. Hilda 22 September 2008 at 10:40 pm #

    Sam. The omega 6 in processed oils such as sunflower is like plastic. It has been bleached, deodorized, boiled, etc etc. Then often hydrogenated. It is not found in nature. This is true also of most margerines (including Flora)and everything made from them which is a huge amount of stuff from ice creams, desserts, cakes, to all fried foods, mayonnaise, salad cream, crisps etc. All of these are harmful.The only good and proper omega 6 is found in unprocessed nuts and seeds and these are needed in the diet as most people get all the plastic stuff but little of the real oils which do the job .

  7. Hilda 22 September 2008 at 10:41 pm #

    Nutri Eskimo 3 fish oil has been stabilised and cleaned up.

  8. Anna 25 September 2008 at 9:06 pm #

    I focus more on achieving a better 3:6 FA ratio by reducing the sources of omega 6 FAs in my diet than by boosting the Omega 3s (avoiding industrial plant oils, grains & soy, choosing grass-fed/pastured meats, poultry, & eggs instead of confined grain-fed, etc.).

    I also don’t like to rely on plant sources of omega 3s, like flax seed, as the conversion in metabolically impaired bodies isn’t very efficient (I have non-obese impaired glucose tolerance and am hypothyroid, so there’s reason to assume my metabolism is impaired).

    So if I supplement at all, I like to use something my body can use efficiently instead of relying on conversion. Krill oil is my usual supplement choice.

  9. jon 24 August 2009 at 3:35 pm #

    Good article, sorry I got to it so late.

    I think there is another supplier that does it –


    I’ll check them out now.



  1. Food World Blog - 19 August 2010

    Flora Flax Oil…

    […] has been bleached, deodorized, boiled, etc etc. Then often hydrogenated. It is not found in nature. […]…

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