QUESTION

I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t get my omega-3s from fish. What’s a good plant-based option?

ANSWER

For people who don’t eat fish, marine algae can be a great way to add healthful, plant-based omega-3s to their diets. This option could appeal not only to vegetarians, who eschew animal products and may or may not consume dairy products, but also to vegans, who eat no animal products (including fish) or animal-derived products. Even people who simply don’t like the taste of fish may want to consider marine algae as a good source of omega-3s.

There’s no question that fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines and anchovies) are a good source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are routinely recommended for overall health benefits, such as brain health, reduced inflammation and reduced risk for heart disease. Most Americans don’t get enough EPA and DHA in their diets, so they often take a supplement that contains these omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil.

But dietary preferences aren’t the only reason that many people forgo fish. There also are increasing concerns about the sustainability of eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, based on the fact that about 85% of the world’s fish species are overfished, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

For all these reasons, marine algae can be beneficial to many people. Like most plants, marine algae undergo photosynthesis—that is, they use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce their own food. Though you may not realize it, the omega-3s found in fish oil mainly come from the marine algae that the fish consume—or from eating krill and other fish that feed on algae. So essentially the primary source of omega-3s is marine algae.

Marine algae can be consumed in food sources, too, including nori seaweed (typically found in sheets that are used in rolling sushi or as a crunchy, salty snack that can be added to rice bowls and soups) and kelp (available in sprinkles that can be used as a topping for salads and/or a substitute for salt). However, it can be difficult to get an appreciable amount of the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA from these food-based sources.

Bonus: Chlorophyll, the green plant pigment found in algae, also has potential health benefits, such as helping to boost immunity and reduce inflammation. The powdered supplements chlorella and spirulina are rich in chlorophyll and can be added to smoothies or juice.

In addition, marine algae are now grown in controlled environments and can be extracted and concentrated into supplements. Studies have found that the EPA and DHA in marine algae supplements have a similar ability to lower levels of blood lipids, including triglycerides, as fish oil supplements. It’s important to note, however, that marine algae supplements may have variable levels of EPA and DHA compared with fish oil supplements.

Most healthy people should consider taking a supplement that contains 250 mg of EPA and DHA per day (roughly the equivalent of eating fish twice per week). If you have a known heart condition, your doctor may want you to have higher levels of EPA and DHA. To ensure that you are choosing a quality supplement, look for “third-party tested” or some other third-party certification on the label.