Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

Why plant-based omega-3 fats are better for your health

The reputation of fish oils has undergone a meteoric rise from the dreaded cod liver oil of years gone by to the highly esteemed omega-3 fish oil capsules of the new millennia. If you want to keep up with modern nutrition you must be omega-3 savvy!

The alternative view is that the only thing ‘clever’ about fish oils is the huge marketing campaign that has got thousands of people running to the health food shops. Fish oils are promoted everywhere you look – well-known scientists recommend them for children, TV adverts hint at their brain-boosting benefits, food producers slip them into all manner of foods. Health food shops struggle to meet demand. So convincing is the marketing that many people believe that oily fish are the only source of the magical omega-3 fatty acids which keep our hearts healthy, children clever and ward off allergies and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.

Some studies suggest that fish oils can lower the risk of heart disease, others are inconclusive and some show fish oils increase the risk of a heart attack! The damaging effect of fish is blamed on the toxins they contain...

All the world’s oceans and rivers are contaminated with toxic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and mercury. These toxins build up in fatty fish and may cancel out any beneficial effects of the omega-3s they contain. You are better off getting omega-3s from healthy plant-based sources such as flaxseed oil, hempseed oil and walnuts. These foods are not laced with toxic pollutants.

The Government has issued warnings to young people, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and those who may become pregnant one day, to limit how much oily fish they eat. They warn that adults should have no more than one portion of swordfish, shark or marlin a week because these fish contain high levels of mercury. They have voiced concerns about the levels of dioxins in herring, salmon and mackerel, but most people know little about these risks. These pollutants can harm children and adults as well as unborn babies and infants. More recently the Government has extended its warnings on dioxins and PCBs to include non-oily fish including: sea bream, turbot, halibut, dog fish or huss, and sea bass. However, it also continues to recommend we eat oily fish. The mixed messages have left people understandably confused.

Farmed fish are not the answer. They contain less omega-3s than their wild counterparts and more toxins. This could mean considerable health risks for those who regularly eat farmed fish.

Promoting oily fish as a public health policy is clearly not working. On average, in the UK, people eat a third of a portion of oily fish a week with seven out of ten people eating none at all. Sadly, more helpful advice on how to get omega-3s from plant-based foods is just not being given.
 
The good news is you don’t have to eat neurotoxins and carcinogens to get your omega-3s; there are perfectly safe plant sources. Many studies show that omega-3s from plants can protect health without exposing you to harmful toxins. So as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based omega-3s provide better protection from heart disease and many other degenerative conditions. This benefits the environment as well; plant-based sources of omega-3s are sustainable, fish are not.

Safer, healthier and sustainable sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds (linseeds), rapeseeds, soya, walnuts and oils made from them. Some species of algae (and supplements made from them) can provide the longer chain omega-3s found in oily fish without exposing you to harmful pollutants. By avoiding fish you can protect your health and help stop the destruction of the oceans caused by over-fishing.

The research clearly shows that fish oils are not the wonder food the industry would have you believe. They don’t guarantee good heart health and turn all kids into geniuses. They are not the answer to arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (which vegetarians suffer much less from). We should stop looking for a ‘quick fix’ and focus on the bigger picture… improving our diets by cutting out the foods laden with animal fats, sugar, salt and cholesterol and eating more fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

The Fish Report examines the science behind the health claims and reveals the research the fish industry would rather ignore. It describes why omega-3 fatty acids are important and explains why plant-based oils are better for human health and the environment. It also describes what toxic substances are found in fish and reveals how harmful they can be. It explains why public health policies promoting oily fish are misplaced and undermine more effective and sustainable strategies. It will leave you in no doubt – fish is not a health food.

Our colourful guide Fish-free for life summarises the science in an easy-to-read way. It explains how sea vegetables provide a safe rich source of valuable vitamins (especially the B vitamin folate) and minerals including calcium, iron and iodine, which is essential for thyroid function. The guide contains tasty fish-free recipes including seafood paella with arame, tofu ‘fish’ sticks with parsley mash and peas and homemade vegetable sushi. 

The environmental argument for switching to plant-based omega-3s cannot be ignored. Commercial fishing is devastating the world’s oceans and fish stocks are plummeting. Flaxseed and other plant-based sources of omega-3s are sustainable sources of this important fatty acid as well as being the healthier option. The many arguments supporting the move towards plant-based omega-3s away from fish oils are indisputable.

Our hearts don’t need fish, our brains don’t need fish and our health is far better served by plant EFAs as part of a well-balanced plant-based diet. Next time you are told of the magical properties of fish oil, you’ll know what to say... fish is not a health food.