Talking Point

Who Needs Fish Oils?

It seems every day brings to light another potential benefit of fish oils: from preventing heart disease to improving the condition of your skin and hair – and now, bizarrely, helping farm animals to protect fish stocks!

Must vegetarians be left out in the cold from the benefits of this miracle substance? Of course not!
In fact, although “fish oils” are commonly referred to, the real agents at work here are some members of a family of fatty acids known as omega-3. Don’t be put off by the “fat” word. Gone are the days when nutritionists believed all fat was bad – now it is known that we need to eat the right kind of fat to stay healthy. Eating the good fats can even help us burn the bad fats. It’s a question of knowing which are the good guys and which are the baddies – and yes, you’ve guessed it - the essential fatty acids found in fish oil are definitely on our side!

There have been many claims for the benefits of essential fatty acids. They are widely accepted to help protect against heart disease, by reducing the likelihood of blood clots and lowering cholesterol. They also help to keep skin and hair healthy. Furthermore it is suggested they may aid weight loss by helping the body to burn saturated fat. More contentiously, omega-3 is thought to improve child behaviour. In addition, a recent scientific study suggested omega-3 oils may help diabetics, by preventing one of the terrible potential consequences of diabetes: blindness. Severe deficiency of essential fatty acids may reduce the ability of wounds to heal, as well as causing anaemia, liver problems and dermatitis such as eczema or acne.

The importance of omega-3 is understood by the farming industry, too. Like us, animals need omega-3 to stay healthy, and, traditionally, fishmeal has been added to feed to ensure a sufficient quantity in their diet. Scientists have recently demonstrated that farm animals could be genetically engineered to allow them to make all the omega-3 they need for themselves. This could allow the animals to be healthier and more resistant to disease, without the need for adding fishmeal to their feed. As a result, this could help conserve fish stocks.

There is no doubt that these essential fatty acids are good for all of the animal kingdom - but what exactly are they and how can we veggies get them? There are two key members of the omega-3 fatty acid family found in fish oil: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Fish oils are a rich source of these nutrients because the fish make them from smaller members of the omega-3 family; we can do the same! By giving our body the building blocks to make these materials, we can get the benefits and leave the fish swimming peacefully. These building blocks can be found in a wide range of non-animal sources, such as nuts, seeds and vegetables. The building block your body uses to make DHA and EPA is the omega-3 fatty acid called linolenic acid; so, do we simply need to make sure we eat things rich in linolenic acid? Well, it is a bit more complicated than that.

Another fatty acid (with a confusingly similar name) is linoleic acid. This belongs to the omega-6 family rather than the omega-3 family. (The numbers refer to key differences in the chemical structures of these two fatty acid families.) The body uses linoleic acid primarily as a building block for other members of the omega-6 family. The body uses very similar processes to convert both omega-3 and omega-6 building blocks into other useful nutrients. This can cause a problem; especially for vegetarians, because omega-6 is so much more widely available in a typical plant-based diet than omega-3. This means omega-6 may easily dominate omega-3 in the conversion process and leave your body short of the miracle substances DHA and EPA. Like all things in life, it comes down to balance!

It is thought that having around five times as much omega-6 in your diet as omega-3 provides an optimum balance. Vegetarians diets may have a much higher ratio than that, so eating some foods that are extremely rich in omega-3 can be very beneficial: one of the best of these is flaxseed. This has around four times as much omega-3 as omega-6, so is great for redressing the balance of these nutrients. Flaxseed (also known as linseed) can be bought whole, cracked or cold-milled. Check the information on the pack if the seeds have been heat-processed, as this can destroy the very fatty acids you want.
Green vegetables ranging from exotic sea-vegetables to traditional and cheap spring greens are also very rich in omega-3. Sea vegetables, like wakame, are surprisingly easy to use: it can simply be added to a salad, or to an oriental stir-fry at the end of cooking. Many nuts and seeds contain omega-3, as well as high concentrations of omega-6. Walnuts, pecans and almonds, pumpkinseeds and hempseeds are all excellent sources that are also full of flavour. You can use these to add a crunch and health-boost to almost any dish. Other valuable sources include avocados and tofu. These can be used to form the basis of omega-3 rich meals that are mercifully quick to prepare.

If, after all those options, you feel you need something further, then you could try a food-supplement. Most oil supplements are sold in animal-derived gelatine capsules, so be careful. However, Vertese supply a selection in capsules based on potato starch, which are suitable for vegetarians. This range includes a blend of omega-rich oils derived from plants as well as individual supplements containing evening primrose oil and flaxseed oil.

Now there should be no excuses, but, just in case you are still not sure where to start, check out the five easy ways for you to boost your omega-3 oil intake. Watch out for the pitfalls too!


1. Sprinkle a teaspoon of hemp seeds on your breakfast cereal or yoghurt for a great start to the day. Before you ask, no – the seeds do not have quite the same effect as the leaves!
2. Take a handful of fresh almonds for a mid-morning snack. Nuts are much better for your teeth than that chocolate bar you were going to have!
3. For a tasty lunchtime treat that will make you the envy of all your colleagues, fill a pitta or tortilla wrap with avocado, raw pecan nuts, salad leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
4. Try the delicious pecan and flaxseed bar recipe below. Remember the recipe won’t work if you eat most of the ingredients as you are making it!
5. Accept that your mum was right and “eat your greens”!


1. Frying all your meals in vegetable oil - vegetable oil is high in linoleic acid (omega-6) that will compete with linolenic acid (omega-3) in your body, reducing the amount of useful DHA and EPA that can be formed.
2. Going swimming more often - you may improve your overall fitness, but behaving like a fish will not increase your omega-3 levels!
3. Eating fish! After all, “it’s only a fish, and as long as I don’t see it’s eyes, it counts as a vegetable!” – a fish is not a vegetable!
4. Using walnut oil to dress your salads – although walnuts are a good source of omega-3, unless it’s ‘cold-pressed’, the omega-3 present in the raw nut will be lost in the processing.
5. Feeding your greens to your dog under the table - your dog may have the glossiest coat in the park but that won’t help you!

Pecan and Flaxseed Bar


75g dried apple rings
75g pecans
25g flaxseed
25g rolled oats
20g ground almonds
2 level teaspoons ground ginger
2 level teaspoons ground cinnamon
100g dried figs
4 dessertspoons pineapple juice


Blend or chop the dried apple and pecans. Mix these in a bowl with the flaxseed, almonds, oats and spices, using a fork. Blend or finely chop the figs and stir these thoroughly into the dry mixture. Gradually add the pineapple juice and mix in well. Using your hands, bind the ingredients together. Add more juice if necessary - the mixture should be slightly sticky but not too wet. Line a tray approximately 10cm x 20cm with greaseproof paper and press the mixture into it. Cover and place in the fridge overnight. The following day, release the mixture from the greaseproof paper. Cut the sheet into 7 bars, using a sharp knife. Each bar can be wrapped individually in cling film and stored in the fridge for up to a week.

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These pages were last updated 22nd May 2010
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