Do we need Fish for Omega 3s and health?

fish swimming

Do we need fish oils for health or have we been sold down the line? In a new scientific report, the VVF has examined the health claims for fish and unearthed the research that the fish industry would rather ignore. The evidence clearly shows that plant-based oils are much safer and healthier, for our health and the environment.

Everywhere you look these days fish oils are being promoted – celebrity scientists recommend them to children, TV adverts imply brain-boosting benefits, food producers slip them into all manner of foods! Health food shops can’t meet the huge demand in this fish oil frenzy. So convincing is the marketing that many people who call themselves ‘vegetarian’ seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the fishy fats.


Omega-3s can have positive health effects in many diseases including heart disease, some cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, mental health, dry eye disease, age-related macular degeneration and psoriasis. However, fish is not the best source; indeed fish oils may do more harm than good.


One long-term study showed that men with heart disease, advised to eat oily fish or fish oil supplements, had a higher risk of sudden death from heart failure than men not so advised. Another study found fish oil supplements increased lifethreatening abnormal heart rhythms in
patients with implanted defibrillators.

A review of studies on fish oils and heart health, which included over half a million heart disease patients, showed no clear benefit of omega-3 fats on heart health. One possible explanation the
authors suggest for this is that the harmful effects of toxins found in oily fish can cancel out the beneficial effects of their omega-3s.


Many people are unaware that all the world’s oceans and rivers are contaminated with toxic pollutants such as mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These toxins accumulate (especially in fatty fish) as you move up the food chain and can completely cancel
out any beneficial effects.

This is why 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. Some governments warn that pregnant and breast-feeding women and children under 16 should not eat larger, older fish such as shark, marlin or swordfish because of the high levels of mercury present. Others 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. Fish now carries a government health warning!

However, the government also continues to recommend we eat oily fish. The mixed messages have left people totally confused.


Farmed fish are not the answer; they contain less omega-3s than their wild equivalents and the levels of toxins they contain are a grave concern. A comparison of farmed salmon and wild salmon found that the farmed salmon had even higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants. Other studies confirm this too, presenting considerable health risks for those who regularly eat farmed salmon.


Fish is not a popular food in the UK; people eat only a third of a portion of oily fish a week with seven out of ten people consuming none at all. Promoting oily fish as a public health policy is clearly not working. The worst consequence of this is that more helpful advice on how to get
omega-3s from plant-based foods is just not being given. This is where the VVF comes in …


The good news is you don’t have to eat neurotoxins and carcinogens to get omega-3s; there are perfectly safe plant sources. Many studies, including a report from the World Health Organisation, show that omega-3s from plants can protect heart health without exposing us to these insidious toxins. So as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based omega-3s provide better protection from heart disease and many other 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 help stop the destruction of the oceans caused by over-fishing and protect your health.

The summary below shows how much omega-3 you should aim to include in your diet each day. These fats are easily damaged by light or heat so keep these foods in the fridge and use them cold in dressings and dips.

Omega-3 fatty acids - one of the following for your daily portion…

  • Flaxseed (linseed) oil: 1-2 teaspoons
  • Ground flaxseed (linseed): 2 tablespoons
  • Rapeseed oil: 2 tablespoons
  • Hempseed oil: 1 tablespoon
  • Walnuts: 8 halves (28 grams)



Fish oils are not the wonder food the industry would have you believe. They don’t guarantee good heart health nor turn all kids into geniuses. They are not the answer to arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (which vegetarians suffer much less from). We must stop looking for a ‘quick fix’ and focus on the bigger picture … improving our diets by cutting out foods laden with animal fats, sugar, salt and cholesterol and eating more fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. It really is that simple.


For more information see the VVF’s report The Fish Report: Why Public Health Policy Should Promote Plant Omega-3 in Preference to Fish Oils or the guide with fabulous fish-free recipes, Fish-Free for Life: Why Plant Omega-3s are Better for You and the Environment


About the Author

Justine Butler

Dr. Justine Butler is the senior health researcher and writer at Viva! She joined as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. She also holds a BSc in biochemistry, and a Diploma in nutrition.

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