Getting Essential Fatty Acids Without Fish

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Fish do not yelp nor do they cry.  But they do feel pain. This is often overlooked when discussing animal welfare, however fish have a nervous system which allows them to sense and react to painful stimuli. The ways in which they are treated by humans do not reflect this knowledge. Humans continue to catch them for fun and for food, both of which cause unnecessary suffering. 

A troubling reality is that more than half of the fish consumed today come from factory fish farms. These fish often come from overseas farms, however the United States wants to change that, meaning more large off-shore fish farms in US waters. Just as land animal factory farms, there are multiple harms that come with these overgrown food systems. 

Harm to Fish 

  • Kept in confined tanks leading to injury
  • Disease and parasite outbreaks due to confinement 
  • Inhumane slaughter, often conscious, through bleeding out, suffocating, freezing, being hit in the head repeatedly. 

Harm to the Environment

  • Uneaten fish feed, waste, chemicals, and antibiotics flow through the cages into the ocean, polluting the water and harming other marine life. 
  • Caged fish can escape, threatening wild fish (disease, competition, genetic mixing)
  • Requires tons of smaller fish to feed, weakening the entire marine food chain

Harm to Humans

  • Risk of antibiotic resistance 

Fish in the Diet 

Fish and seafood have been in the human diet for thousands of years.  Once a necessary staple in the diet for people in some coastal and northern regions of the world, it is no longer required in order to obtain it’s valued nutrients. The argument that places like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes is that fish (for their protein) can be raised more sustainably when compared to land animals. The crucial message left out of the mainstream conversation is that several reports have now shown that eating a fully plant based diet is the best way to conserve land and water. 

Fish and seafood contain nutrients such as protein, essential fatty acids as well as varying amounts of iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. All of these nutrients can be obtained through eating plants. However, getting enough essential fatty acids requires some extra thought. 

What is an essential fatty acid?

There are several types of fatty acids that we consume through our diet and include: 

  • Saturated fats
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids (includes essential fatty acids)
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids
  • Trans fatty acids

Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and include omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.  Fish contain a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health, growth and development as well as immune function. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 

ALA is essential because the body cannot make it, meaning we must get it through our diet through specific plant foods. DHA and EPA are found in fish such as salmon and tuna. The good news is that our bodies can make EPA and DHA from ALA!  Translation: We do not have to consume fish in order to get this important nutrient.

Where can we get these fatty acids?

The highest sources of ALA are

  • flaxseeds, flax oil
  • chia seeds
  • hemp seeds
  • walnuts
  • canola oil 

How much do we need? 

The Institute of Medicine has determined amounts in grams(g) of ALA that meet most people’s needs. More research needs to be done to say exactly how much EPA and DHA is needed in the diet. Note: research on recommended intakes is not representative of all gender expressions. 

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months* 0.5 g 0.5 g
7–12 months* 0.5 g 0.5 g
1–3 years** 0.7 g 0.7 g
4–8 years** 0.9 g 0.9 g
9–13 years** 1.2 g 1.0 g
14–18 years** 1.6 g 1.1 g 1.4 g 1.3 g
19-50 years** 1.6 g 1.1 g 1.4 g 1.3 g
51+ years** 1.6 g 1.1 g

*As total omega-3s

**As ALA

Because vegans do not consume fish or other sea animals, it is recommended to eat an additional 2 grams of ALA in order to make enough DHA and EPA. See the below chart for amounts of ALA in different food sources. 

Food  Serving Grams
Flaxseed oil 1  tablespoon 7.26
Chia seeds 1 ounce 5.06 
English Walnuts 1 ounce 2.57 
Flaxseed, whole 1 tablespoon 2.35
Canola Oil 1 tablespoon 1.28
Soybean Oil 1 tablespoon 0.92
Black Walnuts 1 ounce 0.76
Edamame ½ cup 0.28
Refried beans, canned, vegetarian ½ cup 0.21
Kidney beans, canned ½ cup 0.10
Baked beans, canned, vegetarian ½ cup 0.07

Should you take a supplement?

If you are getting 2 grams in addition to the recommended amount, you may not need to supplement.  If you don’t feel you are getting that amount regularly, you could consider taking a vegan DHA/EPA supplement that is made from algae. If you bleed or bruise easily, taking too much of these fatty acids may make it worse.  It is best to discuss with your doctor or registered dietitian before taking any supplement.

For your pure enjoyment, here are some vegan “seafood inspired” recipes. Flax oil hollandaise anyone?

To learn more about research on what fish feel, check out Penn State biologist, Victoria Brathwaite’s book “Do Fish Feel Pain?” or this article from the Smithsonian. 

Unsettled by the thought of a growing factory fish farm industry in the United States? Call your legislators and tell them. Use this fact sheet for talking points, as well as this position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 


National Institute of Health

Animal Welfare Institute- Fisheries

Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group

National Ag Law Center

About the Author:

Stephanie Swavely is a registered dietitian/nutritionist. She practices in Lancaster, PA at an outpatient oncology clinic. She has 10 years of experience counseling patients on various chronic disease including diabetes and heart disease, and now primarily cancer. She will soon be adding a masters degree in community nutrition to her resume.  Stephanie has been vegan for 6+ years and vegetarian a few years before that. She brings a non-judgmental, no diet approach to her own life and with her patients. Helping people reconnect to their bodies and their food is what Stephanie is all about.

Interested in learning more about a cruelty-free lifestyle? Want more vegan nutrition tips from Stephanie? Then, consider joining Animal Advocates of South Central PA for their FREE Online Vegan Challenge in September 2020 where Stephanie will be a featured speaker!! Sign-up information can be found on Facebook.

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