Omega 3 health benefits get plenty of attention in the nutrition world, and for good reason! Omega 3s are one of the two essential fatty acids the body needs. Intake of omega 3s is associated with numerous health benefits however some claims made about omega 3s go beyond what research truly supports.
When talking about vegan nutrition, omega 3s are an important discussion as they may lack from a traditional vegan diet. Research often reviews omega 3s sourced from fish so it’s interesting to know if there is a difference between fish omega 3s and vegan options.
This article covers:
- Health Benefits of Omega 3
- Omega 3 and Heart Health
- Heart Health Benefits of Omega 3s for Vegans
- Omega 3 and Inflammation
- Cognitive Health and Omega 3
- Other Conditions Related to Omega 3 Intake
- Vegan Omega 3 vs Non-Vegan Omega 3
- How Much Omega 3s Do Vegans Need to Get Health Benefits
Confused about what nutrients are essential for adult vegans? Grab my free, 3 page vegan nutrition cheat sheet that outlines 9 essential nutrients!
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Health Benefits of Omega 3s
Since omega 3s do such important work in the body, they come packed with many health benefits. Some of these are directly related to what we know omega 3s do in the body, and other benefits are associations where people don’t yet know the mechanism of action.
Much of the research on health benefits of omega 3s is related to EPA and DHA from fish or supplements (often fish oil supplements). There’s little research that looks at omega 3s for vegans or vegan sources of omega 3/ vegan omega 3 supplements. There’s also limited research looking at intake of ALA (another type of omega 3) from plant-based foods and long-term impact on health.
Since many health benefits associated with omega 3s overlap with health benefits of a plant-based diet (ex. cardiovascular health benefits), it’s hard to say exactly what the health benefits of omega 3s are for vegans. Regardless, omega 3s are essential to health and consuming more from food sources is likely not harmful (but always speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet).
Omega 3 and Heart Health
Research has found that populations who consume larger amounts of fish have lower rates of heart disease 1. It’s thought that this association is due in part to the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) present in fish 1.
These findings spurred further research into using fish oil supplements to help prevent heart disease. Overall, the research about whether omega 3 supplements can prevent heart disease is mixed 1. Some studies show a benefit where others don’t.
The Canadian Cardiovascular Society 2016 guidelines state there’s high-quality evidence to support not recommending omega 3 supplements for prevention of cardiovascular diseases 2. This means they do not recommend omega 3 supplements to prevent heart disease. Instead, it’s recommended to consume omega 3s from food sources, and to get long-chain omega 3s (EPA and DHA) from 2 servings of fatty fish per week for the heart health benefits of EPA and DHA 2.
Heart Health Benefits of Omega 3s for Vegans
A vegan diet does not imply that someone is eating a healthful diet; however, a diet based around whole plant foods is associated with lower rates of heart disease. How is this possible when plant-based diets are low in long-chain omega 3s (EPA and DHA) and don’t contain fish (the primary source of heart healthy EPA and DHA)?
Plant-based diets contain many other food groups and nutrients that can be beneficial for heart health such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. They also provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
There isn’t just one factor that lowers the risk of a complex condition like heart disease; therefore, people can take many steps to live a healthy lifestyle oriented towards disease prevention.
This isn’t to say that vegans don’t need to worry about omega 3 intake. It’s still an essential nutrient with many important roles in the body. Meeting omega 3 intake requirements, along with a healthy lifestyle, would likely benefit the heart health of vegans. Furthermore, vegans may still wish to meet recommended intakes of DHA from supplements for other health benefits.
Omega 3 and Inflammation
Another leading topic in health and nutrition is inflammation. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids play a role in the body’s inflammatory pathways. As such, omega 3s have been studied for many diseases related to inflammation, most notably arthritis.
The body converts omega 3 fats into anti-inflammatory molecules, whereas omega 6 fats are converted into pro-inflammatory molecules. This brings into question the benefits of consuming more omega 3s and less omega 6s.
Vegans generally consume far more omega 6s compared to omega 3s, but there hasn’t been much high quality, long-term research to see what happens if people consume more omega 3s compared to omega 6s 3.
Research on arthritis and omega 3 supplements is mixed, with some showing benefit and others no benefit 4. If you’re interested in trying an omega 3 supplement for an inflammatory medical condition, please consult your doctor.
Cognitive Health and Omega 3
Since omega 3s, particularly DHA, are a large structural component of the brain’s grey matter and important for other nerve tissue, it stands to reason that omega 3 intake plays a role in cognitive function and mental health.
Many studies suggest that omega 3 intake is associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline with age 4; however, other studies do not support these findings 4. Dietary intake of omega 3s from fish has a stronger relationship to improving cognition and age-related decline compared to supplements which seem to have a more limited effect 4.
I cannot find studies about cognitive health and omega 3 intake in vegetarians or vegans, so can’t comment on whether there is a relationship between omega 3 intake in plant-based eaters and cognitive health.
However, research indicates that Alzheimer’s disease is preventable for some individuals. Prevention stems from the same lifestyle that is beneficial for lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease 5, 6. In other words, a heart healthy diet formed around plant-based foods, potentially with a source of dietary DHA (from fatty fish) could be beneficial for prevention of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease 5, 6. For vegans who can’t consume fish, adequate dietary intake of omega 3s should be targeted with the option of a DHA supplement (speak with your doctor before starting any supplements).
Other Conditions Related to Omega 3 Intake
Omega 3 fatty acids have been studied in relation to depression, inflammatory bowel disease, ADHD, childhood allergies, eczema, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, intermittent claudication, osteoporosis, eye diseases, cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis. Generally speaking, evidence is not strong enough to suggest recommending omega 3 (ALA, DHA or EPA) supplements to people with these conditions 4, 7. While omega 3s can be helpful, individualized care and recommendations are needed.
Vegan Omega 3 vs Non-Vegan Omega 3
Omega 3s are present in vegan foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, soy and canola oil; however, only ALA is present in these foods. For vegans to get EPA and DHA (the omega 3s that are associated with additional health benefits) either the body needs to convert that ALA into DHA and EPA (which it’s not good at doing), or vegans need to source EPA and DHA from supplements.
Non-vegan omega 3s typically come from fish which contains high levels of EPA and DHA. Many of the omega 3 supplements on the market are made from some type of fish oil, however this is not a vegan option.
Luckily there are many omega 3 supplements on the market that are made from algae oil (algae is a plant and therefore a vegan option). Fish eat algae which is how they accumulate omega 3s, including EPA and DHA 8.
There isn’t much research on algae oil as a source of EPA and DHA for vegans, but it does seem that algae oil can increase blood and tissue levels of EPA and DHA 8, 9. I’ve previously reviewed omega 3 for a vegan diet including general recommendations for supplementation.
Always speak to a doctor before starting any supplements.
How Much Omega 3s Do Vegans Need to Get Health Benefits
There isn’t an established level of how much EPA or DHA in blood is ideal, so most standards are based on the levels in the blood of healthy people (who consume animal products) 4. Vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower levels of EPA and DHA in their blood compared to meat eaters 3, 4. Specifically, DHA tends to be lower 3, 4.
Since a large amount of ALA from the diet (ALA is found in plant-based foods) is needed to convert to adequate amounts of DHA, some vegan healthcare practitioners recommend a DHA supplement to increase levels up to that of meat eaters 3, 10.
Again, ideal DHA levels are unknown, so people can’t quantify how much ALA a vegan should consume to get adequate DHA levels, or if a DHA supplement is necessary for vegans 10.
That said, an expert dietitian recommends taking 200-300 mg combined EPA/DHA supplement a few times per week as a precautionary measure 8.
Summary: Omega 3 Health Benefits
There are many notable health benefits of omega 3 intake, particularly EPA and DHA. Many of the health benefits seem to stem from eating whole food sources of EPA and DHA, particularly fatty fish. Some research supports the use of EPA and DHA supplements for certain individuals/ conditions but always speak with a doctor before starting any supplements.
Since vegan diets are low in EPA and DHA, many vegan nutrition experts recommend a supplement as a precautionary measure to ensure vegans can realize the benefits of this essential nutrient.
Meeting your vegan nutrient needs? Get my free, 3 page vegan nutrition cheat sheet that outlines 9 essential nutrients for adult vegans!
Learn more about the Vegan Nutrition Cheat Sheet!
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- 2016 Canadian Cardiovascular Society Guidelines
- Omega-3s Part 2—Research
- Omega-3s Part 1—Basics
- Treatment of vascular risk factors is associated with slower decline in Alzheimer disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease is Incurable but Preventable
- Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth
- Comparing Algae-Based DHA+EPA Supplements
- Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature
- Daily Needs
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
Disclaimer: always speak with a doctor before changing your diet. Please read our full website disclaimer.