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Can I Take Omega-3 Supplements Instead of Eating Fish?

Nutrition Q&A

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Updated May 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

fish oil
Stephanie Bretherton

Dora asks, "I hate the taste of fish and I'm kind of scared of mercury poisoning. Can I take omega-3 fatty acid supplements so I don't have to eat fish?"

You can either increase your intake of plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, or you can take omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are made from either fish oils or from plant sources such as flaxseed oil, but there are some structural differences between the fats found in animals and the fats found in plants. Fish oil contains two long-chain fatty acids called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are the forms of omega-3s that your body uses for a variety of purposes.

Flax and other plant oils contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is also an omega-3 fatty acid, but it has a slightly different structure compared to EPA and DHA. Your body should be able to convert the ALA to either DHA or EPA depending upon which fatty acid your body needs. Here's more about fat structure and function in your body.

Algal oil, which is made from ocean algae, is the one plant source of omega-3 fatty acids that contains pre-formed DHA. Algal oil is also sold as a dietary supplement.

Both fish oil and plant-based omega-3 fatty acid supplements are safe to take as long as you follow the label directions. Taking these supplements for long periods of time may lead to vitamin E deficiencies in some people, and taking large amounts of omega-3 supplements may interfere with blood clotting or interact with certain medications.

Speak with your health care provider before taking large amounts of any dietary supplement.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids." Accessed May 10, 2011. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/DietandNutrition/omega-3-fatty-acids.

Arterburn LM, Oken HA, Bailey Hall E, Hamersley J, Kuratko CN, Hoffman JP. "Algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon: nutritionally equivalent sources of docosahexaenoic acid." J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Jul;108(7):1204-9.

Bloedon LT, Balikai S, Chittams J, Cunnane SC, Berlin JA, Rader DJ, Szapary PO. "Flaxseed and cardiovascular risk factors: results from a double blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial." J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Feb;27(1):65-74.

Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. "Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism." Fourth Edition. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Pub Co. 2005.

 

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