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Of all the different kinds of fish oils out there, one stands out as a real nutrition powerhouse: cod liver oil.
This oil has been used for centuries to optimize diets and boost nutrition intake. But like other fish oils, cod liver is not suitable for plant-based eaters or for people who dislike the taste of fish. In addition, the idea of cod liver oil isn't always appealing, even for those who aren’t vegetarian or vegan. So how can you supplement these important nutrients if you don’t eat fish products or can’t stomach the idea of taking a spoonful of cod liver oil?
As it turns out, the best vegan alternative to cod liver oil is a combination of specific nutrient-rich plant foods and plant-based vitamin supplements.
What Is Cod Liver Oil?
Cod liver oil comes from the livers of Atlantic codfish. You can eat the liver directly, but many people choose to get their oil in supplement form instead.
Cod liver oil has a long history as a dietary supplement, especially in regions that are known to be cold and dark during the winter. For example, Vikings in Northern Europe regularly consumed cod liver oil to help prevent aches and pains. This was especially necessary during the darker winter months when they didn’t receive a lot of sunlight.
More recently, cod liver oil was administered to children starting in the early 1800s to prevent “rickets,” a condition that caused poor bone development in children.
What Are The Benefits Of Taking Cod Liver Oil?
Cod liver oil has a rich nutrition profile, which acts as a good supplement for three key nutrients: Vitamin D, Vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Cod liver oil is an excellent source of Vitamin D. As previously mentioned, one of the most popular uses for cod liver oil was to prevent the development of rickets in children. Rickets was thought to be caused in part by Vitamin D deficiencies, and the symptoms included bone pain and the development of soft, weak bones.
Vitamin D is also known as the "sunshine vitamin" because your body can produce it on its own using natural sunlight absorbed by your skin. Unfortunately, this isn't always an efficient or effective way of receiving your daily vitamin D needs, especially for people with more melanin in their skin or those who live in dark, overcast areas that don't receive a lot of natural sunlight. Vitamin D is also hard to come by from your diet alone since it does not occur naturally in very many foods.
As a result, Vitamin D deficiencies are very common, enough that it’s considered an epidemic by many scientists. Besides poor bone health, this vitamin deficiency has also been linked to conditions like muscle aches, obesity, diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure.
Cod liver oil is also a good source of Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in maintaining your immune health. It's also a key nutrient for proteins in your eye that are responsible for vision.
Liver and fish oils are are some of the best-known sources of Vitamin A, which makes cod liver oil supplements a natural choice for those looking to increase their intake of this important nutrient.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Finally, each serving of cod liver oil also boasts a good serving of omega-3s, which are healthy fatty acids that can support healthy brain development and cardiovascular function. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been beneficial for healthy bones and muscles, and they may help fight inflammation to protect your cells and tissues from damage.*
Like other kinds of cold-water fish oils, cod liver oil is a good source of two active forms of omega-3s, EPA and DHA. These two omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for developing and protecting many of your body's important cells. Their anti-inflammatory effects on the body can support your immune system, which is helpful in the fight against a variety of chronic ailments like high blood pressure and heart disease.*
Cod Liver Oil is Unsuitable For Vegetarians And Vegans
So when put together, the combination of vitamins and healthy fatty acids in cod liver oil are excellent tools for:
- Bone and muscle health
- Immune support
- Mental health
- Cardiovascular support
- Vision and eye health
Unfortunately, cod liver oil does not fit into a vegan diet. Because the oil is extracted from cod livers, vegans and vegetarians who don't eat fish cannot use it as a supplement for omega-3s, nor for vitamins A and D.
There are other downsides to taking cod liver oil as well. You may experience side effects like heartburn and upset stomachs upon taking these supplements. The idea of “cod liver oil” may also sound downright unappetizing, plus you might have to deal with the dreaded “fish burps” after taking them.
Finally, overfishing is becoming a major problem for the health of the oceans. The commercial fishing industry that mass-produces fish oil pills directly contributes to marine habitat destruction and excessive bycatch, which hurts the health and diversity of many marine species. So cod liver oil and other fish products may not be suitable for people looking to minimize their carbon footprint.
Is There A Vegan Cod Liver Oil?
Luckily, cod liver oil is not the only option available to you if you’re trying to increase your intake of omega-3s and vitamins A and D. You can also get these nutrients from plant-based foods and supplements.
However, you’ll likely need to combine a number of these nutrient-dense sources to get the same benefits as you would from one serving of cod liver oil.
Vegan Omega-3 Fatty Acid Sources
Microalgae is naturally rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These microscopic organisms are the reason that fatty fish are rich in omega-3s! Algae are the primary producers of these healthy fats, which are then transferred to cod, salmon, mackerel, and other cold-water fish upon being eaten.
So algae-based Omega-3s are a great vegan alternative to fish oil. They're entirely plant-based, so you don't have to consume animal products. They can be isolated and grown indoors to minimize their impact on the oceans.
In addition to algae oil, you can also eat plenty of foods rich in ALA, a different kind of omega-3 fatty acid. Good sources of ALA include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and vegetable oils. You can also get a good serving of omega-3s from leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
However, you shouldn’t depend on ALA on its own for your omega-3s - it needs to be converted to ALA and DHA in order to reap the health benefits, and this process isn’t always efficient. So for the best omega-3 fatty acid intake, you should take a microalgae supplement in addition to eating ALA-rich plant foods.
Vegan Vitamin D Sources
Vitamin D can be a hard nutrient to come across even if you don't have any dietary restrictions. Naturally, Vitamin D sources are limited to foods like red meats, liver, oily fish, and eggs. It's such a common nutrient deficiency that many dietary staples like milk and cheese are fortified with Vitamin D.
However, vegetarians and vegans can reach their daily recommended intake by eating other common fortified foods that fit into their eating plan, like breakfast cereals. In addition, mushrooms are the only plant-based foods with naturally occurring Vitamin D. A vegan-friendly Vitamin D supplement is also an option: many are made with mushrooms instead of animal sources.
You can get Vitamin D from exposure to sunlight when the weather allows. Just be sure to exercise caution and use sunscreen if you're planning on being out in the sun for more extended periods of time to prevent burning.
Vegan Vitamin A Sources
There are two kinds of Vitamin A that you can get from your diet: preformed Vitamin A and beta-carotene. Preformed Vitamin A is primarily found in animal sources like liver, meats, and fatty fish, so this form of the vitamin isn't readily available for most vegans and vegetarians.
However, you have another option: eating foods rich in beta-carotene. This red-orange pigment converts to Vitamin A when eaten, making it a perfect source of this vital vitamin. You can find it in many plant-based foods like carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, oranges, and papaya - just look for natural plant foods with distinctive orange coloring.
Vitamin A can also be found in many vegan supplements and multivitamins.
Cod liver oil is not your only option for boosting your Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids intake. By filling your diet with plenty of nutritious plant foods and taking vegan-friendly supplements, you can get all of the benefits of cod liver oil, minus the unpleasant fishy taste.