What are omega 3’s?

omega 3 food sources

Omega 3’s are a group of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids that can’t be produced naturally by the human body.

This makes it vitally important to obtain Omega 3’s nutritionally through our diet since they play an essential role in brain function/development and may help reduce the risk of diseases such as arthritis, cancer, and heart disease. 

Benefits of omega 3’s

In 1929 fatty acids became officially classed as essential nutrients with many benefits that have been documented since its importance came to light 

From the prevention of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases through to helping with neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric issues. Many of the benefits of having optimal amounts of omega 3s include

So it’s pretty easy to see the importance of this essential fatty acid for vegans and non-vegans alike.

6 benefits of omega 3

But what makes omega 3’s a topic of debate for vegans specifically?

To break this down, we first need to look at the family of fats that make up Omega 3, the roles they play in the body, and where they are found.

Different types of omega 3 (make a table)

There are many different omega 3’s, but the most important ones for vegans to take note of are ALA, EPA, and DHA.

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)

Is an 18 carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid

It is the most common form of omega 3 in vegan/vegetarian diets since plants, nuts, and seeds are loaded with it.

ALA gets converted into EPA and DHA in your system, but the conversion process is not the most optimal at a rate ranging from 8-20%.

The non-converted ALA is used for energy purposes

Conversion depends mainly on the ALA source and other minerals and vitamins in your body being at optimal levels. Mainly calcium, magnesium, zinc, and B-vitamins.

You can find ALA for vegans in a multitude of plant foods like kale, chia seeds, hemp, and soybeans to name a few

There has been consistent scientific research showcasing the overall benefits of ALA for the human body from helping to reduce blood pressure and heart disease to lowering the risk of atherosclerosis

but in the past, there was conflicting research relating to ALA and prostate cancer which couldn’t determine whether it helped or hindered progression

Updated research has now shown that ALA is in fact not a proponent of prostate cancer and getting a healthy dose relative to your recommended daily amount is safe and positive overall

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids and the two most important Omega 3 fatty acids outside of ALA

ALA has to be converted into EPA and DHA inside our bodies for the Omega 3 fatty acids to become usable

There is a multitude of benefits regarding both EPA and DHA from the reduction of inflammation and the regulation of blood pressure through to playing a crucial part in brain development, especially in children. 

DHA also plays a big part in eye health and the prevention of macular degeneration since 60% of your eye retina is made of DHA

Where are they found?

It was first thought that the best source of EPA & DHA was fish oil, but with further research and testing, it is now evident that the best source of EPA & DHA is marine oils found specifically in marine algae and phytoplankton. Unsurprisingly is what the fish eat which results in fish having high levels of EPA & DHA.

So for vegans instead of using fish as a primary source of EPA and DHA, you can go direct to the source which is the plant algae

Sources of EPA and DHA from plant sources tend to be minimal since they mainly contain ALA.

The most potent forms of EPA & DHA for vegans come from microalgae. 

This is important to remember, especially when picking a vegan Omega 3 supplement since you want the source to be microalgae or algal oil and not fish oil.

Remembering this will ensure you take in high amounts of EPA and DHA and not just a more concentrated amount of ALA since any balanced vegan diet will already have a large helping of ALA.

ALA conversion rates

Unlike non-vegans who have fish as a food source, which is already high in EPA and DHA, the vegan diet mainly consists of plants, and the majority of plant foods primarily contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This makes it essential to take note of the conversion rate of ALA into EPA and DHA to get a better understanding of what is needed to balance a plant-based diet in the best way possible.

  • For men
    • 8% of ALA was converted into EPA
    • 0-4% of ALA was converted into DHA
  • For women
    • 21% of ALA is typically converted into EPA
    • 9% of ALA is typically converted into DHA

Research data taken from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids

The large discrepancy between men and women’s omega 3 conversion is due to the effects of estrogen  

Things that need to be considered are the source of ALA. The most significant study to be completed so far compares vegans who consume no fish or EPA/DHA supplements to fish and meat-eaters showed that the overall conversion of ALA was higher than that of the meat-eaters and that the total EPA and DHA levels in the blood were much closer than expected

Since most studies on ALA conversion don’t compare the effects of an animal source to a plant source on a person who is vegan vs non-vegan, it begs the question 

How much of a difference the source of the ALA will play on the overall conversion rate and whether a long term vegan would have a better total ALA conversion than a new vegan

More studies on ALA sources need to be completed to arrive at a more significant conclusion.

Since plants mainly contain ALA, the ratio of ALA to EPA & DHA for a lot of vegans can be heavily weighted to one side.

Plus, the low conversion rate of ALA is what makes the topic of omega 3’s for vegans such a heavily debated topic.

BUT WAIT……… not all hope is lost. Read on to find out why vegan found sources have the power to excel even with low ALA conversion rates!

Lets first look at the primary sources that vegans will get there omega 3’s from to analyze the situation a little bit closer.

What plant-based sources of omega 3 are there?

A vegan diet is packed with foods that contain Omega 3, from nuts and seeds to beans, vegetables, and fruit. You may have a helping of raspberries and chia seeds in your morning smoothie or cook a zucchini with some of your favorite beans. These all contain a healthy dose of Omega 3, and consuming a healthy variety of Omega 3 food sources will help to prevent deficiency in the future.

Some of our favorite vegan foods that are high in omega 3 are

  • Walnuts 
  • Flax seeds
  • Edamame
  • Tofu 
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Avocado

For a more in-depth look at our favorite vegan foods high in Omega 3 foods with all their nutritional benefits, check out the top 15 Omega 3 foods for vegans.

Algae

As mentioned, marine algae are brilliant sources of omega 3 with high levels of all the important fatty acids that we need. Seaweeds are a type of algae, and despite what many non-vegans may claim, these algae are a great source of Omega 3 and provide one of the best omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios in nutrition.

Two significant algae forms that are high in omega 3 are

Irish moss (100g) provides: 46mg Omega 3 (3% RDA), 2mg Omega 6 giving an incredible omega3/6 ratio of 23:1 

Laver seaweed (100g) provides: 46mg Omega 3 (3% RDA), 2mg Omega 6 giving a nearly equally brilliant omega3/6 ratio of 20:1 

These algae can be a great boost to your diet to enhance omega 3’s and provide you with all the other nutritional benefits that come from algae such as high iron, copper, zinc, manganese, vitamin A, folate and vitamin C.

Check out our article to find out more about these algae sources and their benefits plus other plant-based foods with a brilliant omega 3 to 6 ratio.

Omega 3 supplementation for vegans

OMEGA 3 SUPPLEMENTATION

The two most important fatty acids to focus on when choosing a vegan Omega 3 supplement are DHA and EPA. 

When trying to decide which vegan Omega 3 supplements to buy, always compare the amount of DHA and EPA you get per serving in comparison to other products.

Some products will have low levels of DHA and EPA but high ALA, especially if the source is non-algae based. 

This would mean to hit an optimal amount of DHA and EPA diet you would need to take more servings than another brand to make up for the lower EPA and DHA resulting in less value for money.

It is important to note that supplemental ALA is not as effective at converting into EPA and DHA as it would be if you consumed whole foods like vegetables, nuts, and seeds. This is likely due to the lack of a complete nutrient profile that you would have if consuming complete plant foods as your ALA source.

When picking an Omega 3 supplement look for cofactors that allow for better absorption, primarily calcium, magnesium, zinc, b3 and b6

To find out more about Omega 3 supplementation check out our top 5 omega 3 recommendations for vegans to create optimal nutritional balance.

How much omega 3’s do we need and which factors affect the amounts

Recommended daily amount of omega 3s for adults is between 250-500mg per day with amounts of up to 5 grams a day of combined EPA and DHA still raising no safety concerns.

Factors that affect how much we need

factors that affect omega 3 absorption

Age & Sex

  • Omega 3’s fatty acids are essential nutrients that we will need from birth to old age
  • There is a slow but consistently increasing demand on our bodies for omega 3 from when we are born to becoming an adult with demand peaking at around puberty or the end of the teenage years
  • Requirements for babies is equal no matter the sex at around 0.5g but as we enter teenage life men require a higher amount of omega 3’s at around 1.2-1.6g to maintain healthy levels
  • After officially becoming adults and the teenage years are behind us our omega 3 demands tend to stabilize at about 1.6g for men and 1.1g for women
  • The demand for women stays fairly consistent through adult life unless going through a pregnancy where the daily amount increases by around 0.3 g
  • For healthy aging, a consistent amount of ALA, EPA, and DHA is required, and for vegans, this may potentially require supplementation if you are not getting enough from your diet
  • Old age does not significantly change overall requirements for omega 3’s as long as a healthy balance is maintained

Activity level

  • When training, we push our body through strenuous physical processes that cause internal inflammation and oxidative stress that needs to be repaired. Our food provides us with a lot of the nutrients we need for effective repair and although omega 3’s are not marketed as much as protein studies have shown that an efficient supply plays a significant part in peak performance
  • Omega 3 fatty acids have shown benefits to the nervous and cardiovascular system with supporting anti-inflammatory effects that help with muscle damage caused by physical exercise.
  • A study that was completed on 24 female soccer players taking 3.5g of DHA a day showed an increase in motor skill speed.
  • Omega 3’s have also been shown to have a positive effect on skeletal muscle metabolism and the functional response for a set length of training time.
  • It has the potential to improve exercise performance due to increased reactive oxygen production.
  • There has also been a positive relationship shown between Omega 3 supplementation and thigh strength in cyclists plus a positive effect on recovery among triathletes.
  • Although Omega 3 may not be at the top of an athlete’s nutrient priority list like protein or calcium may be, the benefits maintaining a healthy balance of Omega 3 fatty acids (especially in DHA) should not be overlooked.

Deficiencies

In healthy diets balanced correctly with sufficient macro and micronutrients, the rate of omega 3 deficiency is extremely low. This is for both meat-eaters and vegans/vegetarians 1,2.

Most deficiencies related to Omega 3 fatty acids stem from a long period of consuming unhealthy foods with minimal omega 3’s. Other instances of deficiencies can occur if there is an underlying digestive problem preventing the absorption of nutrients. 

As we age, the efficiency of our body to use Omega 3 fatty acids at an optimal rate begins to lower, so it is essential to take note and if you notice any of the following symptoms get checked out by a professional. 

Although the amount of omega 3’s recommended into old age stays relatively the same as in young adulthood it’s critical to recognize when a potential deficiency may be occurring and what symptoms to look out for

signs of omega 3 deficiency

Excess

Although Omega 3 fatty acids have no set upper intake limit and in general is a relatively safe nutrient, its important to know what is overboard and the symptoms that can come from excess to keep your diet balanced.

Studies done by the EFSA showcased these results:

  • Combined amounts of EPA and DHA of up to 5g (5000mg) a day didn’t raise safety concerns for adults
  • The FDA also claimed amounts up to 3g (3000mg) a day was safe
  • EPA alone of up to 1.8g a day did not raise safety concerns
  • DHA alone of up to 1g a day did not raise safety concerns
  • Symptoms of excess
  • Laxative effects
  • Blood-thinning
  • Potential nausea or stomach discomfort

On the surface of things, there doesn’t appear to be any reason to exceed the average RDA of around 250-500mg.

But this does make us think…..

IF a vegan gets a large enough helping of ALA from their diet, they should still be able to get a sufficient amount of EPA and DHA in their system even with the low conversion rate

Hypothetical scenario to contemplate

  • If 3000mg-5000mg is considered safe, but for this example, we will go with the lower end of the spectrum for safety reasons
  • 3000mg with a 10-21 % conversion to EPA and a 1-10% conversion of DHA
  • Gives you 300- 630mg of EPA and 30-300mg of DHA 
  • Equals 330mg-930mg of combined EPA and DHA per day without resorting to animals, algae, or supplements which easily hits the average RDA of between 250-500mg.

Bear in mind this is hypothetical but a vegan getting a healthy dose of ALA through nuts, seeds, grains, and other vegetables should easily be able to avoid deficiency

This scenario of vegans not needing external sources of EPA & DHA if taken in enough ALA from their diet is also supported by the most significant study done comparing 14000 vegan men and women who had no fish or supplements but had comparatively similar levels of EPA and DHA in their systems to regular fish eaters.

The omega 3/6 ratio 

Dependant on what nutrients Omega 3 fatty acids are consumed with can either increase or decrease how effective ALA conversion to EPA and DHA is, and knowing which nutrients to keep low/high is necessary for achieving an optimal state.

Omega 6’s and the omega 3 to 6 dilemma

Omega 6 is another beneficial essential fatty acid mainly used for energy purposes

High amounts of Omega 6’s can cause absorption issues of omega 3’s since they require the same enzyme to be metabolized, resulting in a competition for internal resources. 

Too much omega 6 in the system can, therefore, cause a lower conversion rate of ALA into EPA and DHA.

Key things to be aware of

  • Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory (prevent inflammation)
  • Omega 6’s are pro-inflammatory (cause inflammation)
  • Although omega 6’s have many health benefits too much can cause health issues

A diet with a higher ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 will cause more overall inflammation in the body which can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues and unnecessary water retention

This can be negated by increasing Omega 3 foods and lowering high Omega 6 foods. Those on the typical western diet have a very imbalanced Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio in general, with omega 3s being way too low. This can cause inflammation and can also lead to an increased risk of obesity.

Lucky for us on plant-based diets most of our foods contain a good enough omega 3 to 6 ratio that things balance out

BUT 

The main problem for those adopting a plant-based diet is the increasing use of seed oils

The main foods that cause omega 6/3 imbalances are vegetable seed oils and margarine.

Due to the heavy marketing of many seed oils these days, a lot of people are consuming oils for the supposed health benefits, but it’s important to know which ones have a good balance of 3/6 and which ones to avoid to keep your body in the best state.

Oils with a good omega 3 to 6 ratio are (make an oils table)

  • Coconut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Canola oil 

Avoid sunflower oil since it has the worst ratio of omega 6 to omega 3.

Other oils to also limit/avoid. These are worse than our top 5 healthy choices but slightly better than sunflower oil.

  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Cottonseed oil

The importance of higher ALA (found in omega 3) to LA (found in omega 6) shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Studies have shown that swapping Linolenic Acid found in Omega 6 foods for Alpha-Linolenic Acid food sources resulted in an overall 11% health improvement in just four days.

This doesn’t mean to eliminate Omega 6 foods altogether but to maintain a higher ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 in your overall diet. 

The same study was able to show that a diet that maintained higher exposure to ALA for a longer period has the potential to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

In general, for optimal health seed oils should be minimized, margarine avoided and an increase in whole plant-based foods that naturally have a safe balance of omega 3 and 6 to avoid issues related to excess omega 6

For our top plant-based foods with a brilliant omega 3/6 ratio, check out our article. (reword) link out to an article

The primary thing for any vegan to do to have the best Omega 3 absorption and efficient conversion from ALA into EPA & DHA is to keep specific nutrients (Calcium, B vitamins, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper, Iron) at a sufficient level and keep Omega 6 levels low. This creates the perfect environment for Omega 3 fatty acids to thrive without interruption.

So will vegans become Omega 3 deficient without a daily helping of fish??? (conclusion)

Based on all current tests and scientific research the answer is NO

In fact, vegans on a balanced diet have no real Omega 3 issues even with the low conversion rates that many will turn to as an argument against the vegan diet narrative. The numbers show a vegan getting a healthy amount of ALA from omega 3’s will be able to get enough EPA and DHA in their diet without a struggle.

Omega 3’s do not have a set upper intake limit since there are no significant signs of issues with high amounts.

This means you gain all the benefits that come from a plant-based diet high in ALA without issues and all the benefits from the healthy nutritionally balanced whole foods that are typically found in a well structured vegan diet.

And if need be algae, like Irish-moss or an algae-based Omega 3 supplement will cover all nutritional bases.

Vegans have an ample amount of great omega 3 sources from nuts and seeds to fruit and beans

But everyone should be careful of seed oils that have a high Omega 6/3 ratio and only opt for oils that have a low omega 6/3 ratio

Good options are canola oil, safflower oil, and olive oil.

Omega 3’s have also shown great benefits for those that exercise a lot so keeping Omega 3 levels at optimal amounts should help overall exercise performance

On a balanced vegan diet, there is less chance of omega 3 deficiency and very low chance of getting the diseases that many on the western diet get from having an imbalanced amount of omega 6 to omega 3s

Remember that omega 6’s are pro-inflammatory and omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory so keeping these balanced is key to avoiding inflammation in the body

Key takeaways for vegans are:

  • Balance out your diet with a variety of Omega 3 sources that have a good omega 3/6 ratio
  • Only use specific seed oils and avoid sunflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and limit soybean oil

Hopefully, now you feel like you have leveled up in your nutrition knowledge regarding Omega 3 and know how to avoid potential pitfalls and how to maximize all the incredible benefits that can come from this essential nutrient. You can now also silence the fish oil screamers with your evidence-backed knowledge regarding the topic, and if all else fails, you can stay silently confident and just give them a link to this article. 

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