Omega-3 gets a lot of attention in the nutrition world, and for good reason! Omega-3s are an essential nutrient and have been linked to many health benefits.
They’re commonly found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements. Plant-based sources may lack adequate amounts of certain omega-3s; therefore, it’s important for vegans to learn how to consume enough omega 3s without fish.
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What are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a type of fat. There are two essential fatty acids humans require, omega-3s and omega-6s 1. Essential nutrients are any vitamin, mineral or nutrient the body requires but cannot produce.
Omega-3s are often grouped into one category, but they’re a collection of fat molecules. The three types of omega-3s important for human health are ALA, EPA and DHA 1.
Each of these omega-3s can have a unique role in the body and therefore impact health outcomes in different ways. Despite this, ALA is the only omega-3 classified as an essential fat with specific intake recommendations set.
The body cannot produce ALA which is why it’s categorized as an essential nutrient 1. The body can technically make EPA and DHA, from ALA, which is why EPA and DHA are not categorized as essential nutrients - but ALA is.
People debate whether DHA should be classified as an essential nutrient, but to date, there isn’t enough evidence to support this idea 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
EPA and DHA production is limited in the body which is why consuming these omega-3 fats directly is often recommended 1, 5. DHA production is especially limited, hence the debate on whether it should be classified as an essential nutrient.
What Do Omega-3s Do in the Body?
Omega-3 fats are a popular nutrient to study. They have many vital roles in the body and research on possible roles and health benefits continues to evolve.
Some functions of omega-3s include:
- Cell walls: Omega-3s are used to create phospholipids, the basic structure of cell walls in the body 1, 5.
- Anti-inflammatory eicosanoids: Omega-3s can be changed into other molecules that help reduce inflammation 1, 5, 7.
- Heart health: A large body of research suggests omega-3s are beneficial for heart health 5. Many studies are observational (cannot determine causation) and often focus on EPA and/or DHA, specifically fish consumption or fish oil supplements (rather than ALA or plant-based sources of DHA). It seems omega-3s may benefit blood pressure, blood clotting, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels, but more clinical trials are needed 1.
- Brain health: A type of omega-3, DHA, is a major component of the grey matter in the brain 1. Some studies show omega-3 intake can protect brain health and improve cognitive decline with age 1.
- Growth and development: As infants grow, large amounts of DHA are accumulated in the brain. It’s thought that DHA is essential during this stage of life 5.
Omega-3 fats may play a role in other areas of the body too and have been studied in relation to other health conditions 1. Most of the research on omega-3s and other health outcomes is inconclusive 1.
How Much Omega-3s Do Vegans Need?
For average, healthy adults, adequate intake for omega-3s is set at 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women 1, 8.
Alternatively, daily intakes are also reported as a percentage of total energy intake. For omega-3s, the recommendations are set at 0.6-1.2% of total energy 1, 8. For a 2000 calorie diet, this works out to roughly 1.3-2.7 grams of omega-3s per day.
These recommendations are for consumption of ALA as this is the omega-3 considered to be essential 1.
There are no recommendations for omega-3 intake specific to vegans or vegetarians. This means adult vegans should aim to meet the intake recommendations set for average, healthy adults.
Almost all vegan food sources of omega-3s are high in ALA only. Meeting the intake recommendations above is possible on a vegan diet but will contain ALA exclusively.
Omega-3 Fat Conversions
ALA is the omega-3 fat considered essential to humans and is also the omega-3 most abundant in plant-based diets. ALA can convert into a longer chain omega-3 called EPA 9.
However, there’s concern this conversion doesn’t happen efficiently enough to create adequate EPA in the body 9. Some research suggests the conversion rate of ALA to EPA is adequate and that consuming enough ALA should result in adequate EPA 5, 10, 11, 12.
EPA can then convert into DHA. Even though DHA is not considered an essential nutrient, evidence suggests humans need DHA, especially during brain development in fetuses and infants 2, 5, 9.
The body is not very good at converting EPA into DHA with estimates that conversion to DHA is less than 1% of ALA consumed 5, 10, 11.
Other research has found higher conversion rates, but these conversion rates are lowered by high omega-6 intake 13.
There may be genetic differences in human’s ability to convert ALA to DHA 11. Women may better convert ALA to EPA than DHA 11, 14.
This means even with high amounts of ALA in the diet, adequate DHA may not be produced 11, 12. Some researchers believe people need to directly consume DHA to make up for this lack of conversion 12.
EPA and DHA Recommendations for Vegans
To date, there are no specific recommended intake levels for EPA and/or DHA for vegans.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends intake of EPA plus DHA to be 250 mg per day for adults, with an additional 100-200 mg of DHA per day during pregnancy and lactation 5.
The recommendations for adult consumption of EPA and DHA of 250 mg per day were determined based on cardiovascular benefits 5. Extra DHA during pregnancy can be helpful for fetal and infant brain development 5.
Traditionally, this translated into recommendations for consuming fatty fish twice per week since fish can be a good source of EPA and DHA 1. Interestingly, dietary guidelines in Canada no longer include this recommendation specifically 15.
Vegans may need supplements to directly consume EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, there’s little research on how much EPA and/or DHA is needed for supplements to be effective. There are no specific recommended intake levels for EPA and/or DHA in the Dietary Reference Intakes in Canada or the United States 1, 8.
Always consult your primary care provider before starting supplements. While there’s no upper limit set for omega-3 intake, more is not always better, and there are possible side effects to consuming high amounts of omega-3s 16, 17.
How Can Vegans Get Enough Omega-3s?
Meeting basic recommendations of omega-3 intake for adults (1.6 grams/day for men and 1.1 grams/day for women; or 0.6-1.2% of daily calorie intake) is possible on a vegan diet through food sources alone 1, 8, 18.
Large amounts of omega-3s, in the form of ALA, are found in many vegan foods. Certain nuts and seeds are the best sources along with soy products and oils made from high omega-3 foods.
Consuming these foods regularly can help vegans meet basic intake requirements for omega-3s (ALA).
Adding high omega-3 nuts and/or seeds to meals is a simple way to help meet intake requirements through food. That, along with eating soy foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk) on a regular basis makes it fairly simple to meet omega-3 intake needs, at least for ALA specifically.
Alternately, getting enough EPA and/or DHA may require supplementation.
Best Vegan Omega-3 Foods
Hemp seeds, chia seeds, ground flaxseeds and walnuts are the best vegan sources of omega-3s. Certain oils, like flaxseed, canola, walnut and soybean, also have high amounts of omega 3-s 18.
Here’s a list of the best vegan omega-3 foods. The serving size for these foods is very small; only 1 tablespoon of nuts and seeds, or 1 teaspoon (1 tablespoon also listed) of oil, but this amount provides a good amount of omega-3s!
|Food (serving size)||Omega-3 (ALA) in grams|
|Hemp seeds, hulled (10 g)||0.9|
|Chia seeds (10 g)||1.8|
|Ground flaxseeds (10 g)||1.6|
|Walnuts, chopped (10 g)||0.9|
|Flaxseed oil (1 tsp/ 5 mL)||2.5|
|Flaxseed oil (1 tbsp/ 15 mL)||7.4|
|Canola oil (1 tsp/ 5 mL)||0.4|
|Canola oil (1 tbsp/ 15 mL)||1.3|
|Walnut oil (1 tsp/ 5 mL)||0.5|
|Walnut oil (1 tbsp/ 15 mL)||1.4|
|Soybean oil (1 tsp/ 5 mL)||0.3|
|Soybean oil (1 tbsp/ 15 mL)||0.9|
|Edamame (125 mL/ 95 g)||0.3|
Here’s another list, this one showing other plant-based sources of omega-3s. These foods have smaller amounts of omega-3s but could be helpful to meet omega-3 needs on a plant-based diet.
|Food (serving size)||Omega-3 (ALA) in grams|
|Tofu, extra firm (100 g)||0.2|
|Tempeh (100 grams)||0.2|
|Soy milk (250 mL)||0.2|
|Kidney beans (125 mL/ 94 g)||0.2|
|Black beans (125 mL/ 91 g)||0.1|
|Navy beans (125 mL/ 96 g)||0.2|
|Chickpeas (125 mL/ 87 g)||0.04|
|Brussels sprouts, boiled (4 sprouts/ 84 g)||0.1|
|Spinach, boiled (125 mL/ 95 g)||0.1|
|Kale, boiled (125 mL/ 80 g)||0.1|
|Wheat germ, toasted (30 g)||0.2|
|Pumpkin seeds, roasted (96 g)||0.2|
Seaweed is a commonly reported source of plant-based omega-3s but amounts of omega-3s in different seaweeds is variable 19. The Canadian Nutrient File only lists nori and spirulina, both of which had insignificant amounts of omega-3 content 18.
The USDA database for omega-3 content of foods doesn’t include any standard seaweed or algae products 20. Specific brands of seaweed-containing foods were available, but omega-3 content wasn’t typically listed 20.
Do Vegans Need an Omega-3 Supplement?
Vegan diets should provide adequate ALA if foods high in omega-3s are eaten (see list above). Vegans shouldn’t need an ALA supplement if consuming these food sources regularly.
With concerns over limited conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, some vegan nutrition experts recommended one of two options: 21
- Consuming an additional 2 grams of ALA per day. This means a daily intake of 3.6 grams of ALA per day for men and 3.1 grams of ALA per day for women.
- Take a DHA supplement that offers 200-300 milligrams of DHA per day.
The rationale behind option 1 is that the body can convert ALA to EPA, then EPA into DHA 21. Some research suggests higher amounts of ALA intake can help produce more DHA, but there isn’t a guarantee that adequate amounts of DHA would be produced 21.
Option 2, taking a DHA supplement, provides DHA directly. This skips over any concerns about the body producing DHA. With this option, consuming adequate amounts of ALA are still required (1.1-1.6 grams of ALA per day for women/men) 21.
200-300 milligrams of DHA per day is inline with the European (EFSA) recommendations 5.
Remember that DHA is not classified as an essential nutrient and there’s debate over whether it should be considered essential or not 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. It does seem that DHA is essential during pregnancy, lactation and infancy 5.
If you’re concerned about DHA intake, speak with your doctor about supplementation.
More research is needed to determine optimal levels of DHA in the body, how much DHA is needed to maintain these levels, and the needs of DHA for vegans specifically.
Best Vegan Omega-3 Recipes
Here’s some of my favorite recipes that include high omega-3 ingredients! These recipes are great for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Hemp, Chia and/or Flaxseeds
- Peanut butter granola
- Green apple cinnamon smoothie
- Spinach salad with maple balsamic dressing
- Caesar salad dressing
- Baked oatmeal with blueberries
- Baked falafel
- Lentil walnut tacos
- Spinach and walnut pesto
- Quinoa salad with cranberries and walnuts
- Bircher muesli
- Stuffed acorn squash
- Lentil loaf
Tofu and Edamame
- Tofu chow mein
- Red curry with tofu
- Tofu fried rice
- Kale salad with orange-miso dressing
- Tofu scramble
- Edamame falafel
Summary: Omega-3 and Vegan Diets
Omega-3s are a group of fats that include ALA, EPA and DHA. Only ALA is considered an essential fat with established intake recommendations.
The required amount of omega-3s can be met through a plant-based diet as ALA is found in many vegan foods.
Debate exists over whether DHA is an essential nutrient for humans (whether humans need to consume DHA directly). European targets suggest adults should consume 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA directly, through foods (fatty fish) or supplements.
Vegans may want to consider a DHA supplement to help meet these needs; however, meeting ALA intake requirements from food is still essential even if a DHA supplement is taken.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
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- Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?
- Long-chain n-3 PUFA: Plant v. marine sources
- Canada’s dietary guidelines for health professionals and policy makers
- Omega-3 supplements: In depth
- EFSA assess safety of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
- Canadian nutrient file
- Seaweeds as valuable sources of essential fatty acids for human nutrition
- USDA FoodData Central
- Daily needs (Vegan Health)
- Effect of omega-3 dosage on cardiovascular outcomes: An updated meta-analysis and meta-regression of intervention trials not referenced (not referenced)
This reference list is not intended to be comprehensive.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.
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