Can DHA and EPA help your heart if they don't come from fish?
The link between fish-based omega-3 fatty acids and heart health has been recognized since the 1960’s. We now have recommendations from the American Heart Association (among others) for intakes of omega-3 fatty acids which aim to support heart health. But what’s a person to do if they don’t like fish? Or if you’re a vegetarian? Are there other sources of EPA and DHA?
DHA sourced from algae has been available for quite some time, and is widely used in fortified foods, dietary supplements, and infant formulas. However, not as many people know that there are algal sources of both DHA and EPA, which was introduced as a new dietary ingredient in 2011. Enter Maki and colleagues, who compared the effect of DHA + EPA on blood lipids from either a fish source or an algal source to placebo in a group of subjects with mildly elevated triglycerides. After 6 weeks of supplementation, triglycerides were significantly decreased by 18.9% and 22.9% in the algal and fish oil supplemented volunteers, respectively, as compared to a 3.5% increase in the placebo group. In sum, supplementation with DHA + EPA from either algal or fish sources delivered comparable heart health benefits, and both were significantly more effective than placebo.
Getting your nutrients from food sources is always the preferred option; however it’s not always easy to do so. In the case of omega-3 fatty acids where the best food sources come from fish, meeting the recommended intake is especially difficult for vegetarians, or for those who simply don’t like fish. The limited dietary sources of EPA + DHA may be part of the reason why, on average, adult American women and men only consume between 90-120 mg of EPA and DHA per day, which is less than half of the conservative end of the 250-500 mg/day recommendations for omega-3 intake.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are essential for health, and it is important to get enough in your diet. We have to do our best to remain “nutrition agnostic” – do your best to fulfill your nutrient requirements regardless of the source. If you’re a vegetarian, know that there are sources of omega-3 fatty acids that come from non-animal sources like algae, and that the DHA & EPA found within can help your body just as well as they can from fish.
Maki KC, Yurko-Mauro K, Dicklin MR, et al. A new, microalgal DHA- and EPA-containing oil lowers triacylglycerols in adults with mild-to-moderate hypertriglyceridemia. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2014; Jul 22 (epub ahead of print).
Flock MR, Harris WS, Kris-Etherton PM. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: time to establish a dietary reference intake. Nutr Rev 2013; 71(10): 692-707.
US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 2012. Nutrient intakes from food: mean amounts consumed per individual, by gender and age. What We Eat In America, NHANES 2009-2010. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/12355000/pdf/0910/Table_1_NIN_GEN_09.pdf