You have probably heard about the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids but are they really necessary and can you get enough from your diet if you are vegetarian or vegan?
We’ll dive in to the facts and cover the best vegan omega 3 food sources and when and if supplementation is necessary.
What are Fatty Acids?
Just as protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, fat is made up of building blocks called fatty acids. Our body breaks down fats into fatty acids during digestion before being absorbed into the blood.
There are three main types of fatty acids: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are further broken down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
It’s hard to talk about fatty acids without reviewing a little chemistry. The classification of saturated and unsaturated is basically referring to the chemical structure of the fat. All fats are made up of different lengths of carbon chains that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fat is made up of carbon chains that are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms and contain only single bonds between the carbon atoms.
These types of fats tend to be solid at room temperature and can increase your “bad” LDL cholesterol which increases your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Trans fats are both naturally occurring in meat and dairy and artificially made by producing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These oils are inexpensive and help increase the shelf life of foods.
Trans fat, especially coming from partially hydrogenated oils, have been found to be the worst offenders for raising your “bad” LDL cholesterol, lowering your “good” HDL cholesterol and increasing your risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes 1.
Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between carbon atoms. These fats are primarily found in plant foods and are considered “good” fats in moderation.
Unsaturated fats have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve blood cholesterol levels among other health benefits.
There are two types of “good” unsaturated fats:
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) have one double bond. Sources of monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, peanut and canola oils, and certain nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have more than one double bond. These consist of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids (sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils).
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential. This means your body is unable to produce these fats on it’s own so it is necessary to get them from your diet.
What are Omega 3s?
As mentioned above, omega 3-fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. To complicate things even further there are 3 main types of omega 3-fatty acids:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This is the parent omega 3 from which EPA and DHA can be derived from. ALA is found in plant sources.
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). EPA is an omega 3 found in marine sources including fish.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is also an omega 3 found in marine sources including fish.
ALA is the only omega 3 formally recognized as essential and the only omega 3 that has a dietary reference intake. Some of ALA can be converted into EPA. A very small amount can be converted into DHA.
All 3 types of omega 3s are important but that does not mean that you need to eat fish or take a fish oil supplement in order to get DHA and EPA. There might naturally be increased conversion in non-meat eaters as was implicated in the EPIC-Norfolk study 2,3.
This makes sense to me as your body is pretty smart in finding out how to get what it needs. Just as our body can extract from the pool of amino acids that we get in our diet to make up “complete proteins.”
Despite not having as much scientific research as DHA and EPA, ALA from plant foods has been found to have it’s own independent benefits 4.
Benefits of Omega 3s
Omega 3s play an important role in your health. Not only are they a necessary part of the cell membranes throughout your body, there are many other potential benefits including:
1. Heart Health
Omega 3s have been shown to lower your risk for heart disease by lowering triglyceride levels (fats in the blood) and may also help to increase your “good” HDL cholesterol and improve blood pressure5.
2. Brain Health
Some studies associate omega 3s with a reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia6.
Getting enough omega 3s during pregnancy has also shown to be beneficial for the infant’s brain growth and improved cognitive development7.
4. Eye Health
DHA levels are especially high in the retina of the eye. Although more studies are needed, omega 3s have been associated with improvement in dry eye and may help prevent macular degeneration10.
I know for myself personally, omega 3 supplementation has had a positive impact on helping to reduce my dry eye symptoms.
How Much Omega 3s Do You Need?
The recommended daily intake for ALA is 1.1 g for women and 1.6 g for men. Pregnant women need 1.4 g a day. Most of us are able to get adequate ALA, especially on a plant based diet.
There is no official dietary reference intake for EPA or DHA, but based on cardiovascular risk considerations a daily intake of 250-500 mg for adults has been recommended11.
Best Vegan Omega 3 Sources
A plant based diet provides a wide variety of omega 3 (ALA) sources. Good sources include walnuts, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Walnuts are the only nuts with significant amounts of omega 3.
You can also find omega 3s in other plant foods such as:
- firm tofu, tempeh and other soy products
- dark leafy greens
- Brussels sprouts
- kidney beans
- red lentils
- wild rice
- winter squash
These sources are not as rich as the nuts and seeds mentioned above but they definitely contribute to your total intake.
Some plant based products are fortified with omega 3s. You can find omega 3s added to certain plant milks, firm tofu, some plant based “fish” alternatives, and other foods.
There are certain vegetable oils such as soybean and canola oil that are considered good sources of omega 3s. However, due to the high amount of fat and omega 6 content I do not consider them the best sources.
A Note About Absorption
One thing to note about omega 3 absorption is that omega 6 fats use the same enzymes as omega 3s to make the longer chain forms needed in the body. Because of this, they compete with omega 3s for conversion.
If you have more omega 6 in your diet (from sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils) this impairs your ability to convert ALA. Since our food supply is loaded with omega 6 oils most of us get an over-abundance in our diet.
As long as you are limiting processed and packaged foods (where there are high amounts of omega 6) your ability to convert ALA should not be compromised.
Are Omega 3 Supplements Necessary?
If you are healthy you may not need to supplement. I personally choose to take a daily omega 3 supplement, but there are differing opinions on this and the answer is very individual.
If you have a chronic disease condition such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease or are elderly with decreased intake it might be prudent to take a supplement.
As a plant based eater, if you would like to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of EPA and DHA then taking a vegan algae based supplement is a great option in addition to eating an ALA rich diet.
Algae is where fish get their omega 3s, so not only are you going directly to the source but it’s an excellent plant based option and a more sustainable one at that.
Omega 3 Summary
Omega 3 fatty acids are an essential fat required in our diet that has been linked to many health benefits. The science on omega 3s continues to evolve as we learn more.
You do not have to eat fish to meet your omega 3 needs. It is easy to meet the recommended daily intake of ALA omega 3s on a plant based diet. There is also some evidence that conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA may be higher in non-meat eaters, but more studies are needed.
Algae oil supplements are an excellent vegan source of EPA and DHA and can help ensure that you are meeting all of your omega 3 needs.
Find ways to incorporate these vegan omega 3 sources into your diet to make sure you’re not coming up short on this important fatty acid. If chia seeds scare you, I dare you to try my pumpkin protein overnight oats recipe and see how you like it!